Some have gone as far as blaming the subprime mortgage crash on the ratings agencies because, in retrospect, their judgments were wrong. But a lot of other intelligent people were wrong as well. A separate issue is the report by the Financial Times last week that a computer bug resulted in Moody’s awarding incorrect triple A ratings to billions of dollars-worth of one type of complex debt product. That is something that Moody’s must resolve but it is not the primary basis for wider debate about credit ratings.
That debate must rest on what went wrong with the ratings on asset-backed bonds. First, there was fraud in the underlying mortgage applications, so ratings were based on false data. Second, subprime mortgages are a recent innovation, so there were few data on how they perform in a downturn. Third, mortgagors seem to have become more willing to walk away from their homes as prices fall, and ratings agencies did not spot the change.
A fundamental, though intractable, question is whether the inadequacy of the ratings was linked to the conflict of interest faced by all of the ratings agencies. Credit ratings are used by investors but paid for by the issuers of bonds, so the agencies have a financial incentive to keep issuers happy. This conflict could be solved – by, for example, creating an independent body to commission credit ratings using issuers’ money – but that would require the will to push through a fundamental industry upheaval.
Some have proposed straightforward regulation as an alternative – but it would not work. Confronted with byzantine new forms of structured finance and little time to assess them, regulators would either be captured by the agencies, or block all innovation. It would be far better to open up the methodology behind ratings to wider scrutiny, debate and understanding.
That is a change the credit raters must make themselves and it is not the only one. Credit ratings were not just wrong, they were misunderstood, and the agencies’ use of the familiar triple A nomenclature contributed to that. Structured bonds are different to normal corporate bonds both in legal structure and in how they behave. The ratings agencies should adopt new labels to describe them forthwith.
Lex on Credit ratings
The retreat of the credit tide left more than the rating agencies swimming naked. Certain buyers of highly rated structured products were shown up for not understanding what they were shoving onto their balance sheets or into their investment funds. Even those who created and sold the structures did not seem to appreciate the real risks. Just look at the huge write-downs taken by leaders in collateralised debt obligation production such as Merrill Lynch.
Incentives were skewed. Big mistakes were made. These were compounded by an unprecedented boom and slump in the price of US houses, which were the underlying asset in many struggling structured products. But there also appears to have been a misunderstanding among many of how different a structured product is from a corporation when it comes to ratings.
First, corporations do not have a finite life. Structured products do, given that mortgages, for example, are repaid. Second, companies have flexibility. They can cut costs, sell assets or raise new money in order to pay their debts. Structured products are straitjacketed. They have a set of rules, with limited room for manoeuvre, especially if events move against them. Given their characteristics, structured products are very different investments. Investors should be acutely aware of this even without an extra label on credit ratings to remind them.
For example, companies face detailed rating analysis only every six months or so, unless there is a big event such as an acquisition. The performance of a pool of mortgages, in contrast, can be updated monthly, with real information on early payments, arrears etc. Ratings should probably be changed more often as a result.
If investors want better structured product information, they might also have to brace themselves for more ratings volatility than they have been accustomed to historically.