Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Growing Criticism of Rating Firms

by Bill McBride on 8/14/2007 11:13:00 PM

A few short excerpts from the WSJ: How Rating Firms' Calls Fueled Subprime Mess

In 2000, Standard & Poor's made a decision about an arcane corner of the mortgage market. It said a type of mortgage that involves a "piggyback," where borrowers simultaneously take out a second loan for the down payment, was no more likely to default than a standard mortgage.
...
Six years later, S&P reversed its view of loans with piggybacks. It said they actually were far more likely to default. By then, however, they and other newfangled loans were key parts of a massive $1.1 trillion subprime-mortgage market.

Today that market is a mess.
The Alt-A mortgage and LBO debt markets are also a mess, but this articles focuses on subprime.
It was lenders that made the lenient loans, it was home buyers who sought out easy mortgages, and it was Wall Street underwriters that turned them into securities. But credit-rating firms also played a role in the subprime-mortgage boom that is now troubling financial markets. S&P, Moody's Investors Service and Fitch Ratings gave top ratings to many securities built on the questionable loans, making the securities seem as safe as a Treasury bond.

Also helping spur the boom was a less-recognized role of the rating companies: their collaboration, behind the scenes, with the underwriters that were putting those securities together. Underwriters don't just assemble a security out of home loans and ship it off to the credit raters to see what grade it gets. Instead, they work with rating companies while designing a mortgage bond or other security, making sure it gets high-enough ratings to be marketable.

The result of the rating firms' collaboration and generally benign ratings of securities based on subprime mortgages was that more got marketed. And that meant additional leeway for lenient lenders making these loans to offer more of them.
...
The subprime market has been lucrative for the credit-rating firms. Compared with their traditional business of rating corporate bonds, the firms get fees about twice as high when they rate a security backed by a pool of home loans. The task is more complicated. Moreover, through their collaboration with underwriters, the rating companies can actually influence how many such securities get created.
Also from Bloomberg: Moody's, S&P Lose Credibility on CPDOs They Rated
Moody's Investors Service and Standard & Poor's, the arbiters of creditworthiness, are losing their credibility in the fastest growing part of the bond market.

The New York-based ratings firms last month gave a new breed of credit derivatives triple-A ratings, indicating they were as safe as U.S. Treasuries. Now, investors are being offered as little as 70 cents on the dollar for the constant proportion debt obligations, securities that use credit-default swaps to speculate that companies with investment-grade ratings will be able to repay their debt.

``The rating doesn't tell me anything,'' said Bas Kragten, who helps manage the equivalent of about $380 billion as head of asset-backed securities at ING Investment Management in The Hague. ``The chance that a CPDO won't be triple-A tomorrow is a lot greater than it is for the government of Germany.''

The legacy built by John Moody and Henry Varnum Poor a century or more ago is being tarnished by losses on securities linked to everything from subprime mortgages that the firms failed to downgrade before it was too late to high-yield, high- risk loans.