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Rating Agencies Considered Harmful

by Colman Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 06:57:17 AM EST

Paul Krugman is not as exercised by Goldman Sachs as others - he's more concerned by what the US Senate investigations are throwing up about the rating agencies

The rating agencies began as market researchers, selling assessments of corporate debt to people considering whether to buy that debt. Eventually, however, they morphed into something quite different: companies that were hired by the people selling debt to give that debt a seal of approval.

Those seals of approval came to play a central role in our whole financial system, especially for institutional investors like pension funds, which would buy your bonds if and only if they received that coveted AAA rating.

It was a system that looked dignified and respectable on the surface. Yet it produced huge conflicts of interest. Issuers of debt — which increasingly meant Wall Street firms selling securities they created by slicing and dicing claims on things like subprime mortgages — could choose among several rating agencies. So they could direct their business to whichever agency was most likely to give a favorable verdict, and threaten to pull business from an agency that tried too hard to do its job. It’s all too obvious, in retrospect, how this could have corrupted the process.

And it did. The Senate subcommittee has focused its investigations on the two biggest credit rating agencies, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s; what it has found confirms our worst suspicions. In one e-mail message, an S.& P. employee explains that a meeting is necessary to “discuss adjusting criteria” for assessing housing-backed securities “because of the ongoing threat of losing deals.” Another message complains of having to use resources “to massage the sub-prime and alt-A numbers to preserve market share.” Clearly, the rating agencies skewed their assessments to please their clients.

Which hide the "true" risks and overloaded the system with high-risk debt masquerading as low-risk.

He says that the current attempts at regulation - aimed at the identified "bandits" rather than the system failures - won't help. He suggest that the incentives for the rating agencies need to be changed, since the current system is inherently corrupting.


Display:
These are the rating agencies that the Irish economy is currently being run to placate. <wheeeeeeeeeeeee>
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 07:03:54 AM EST
Incidentally, wasn't this little problem with the rating agencies well-known on ET several years ago?
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 07:07:16 AM EST
Some discussion of how in particular sovereign credit ratings are political is in the comments to FT and S&P - conventional wisdom : why we should care by Agnes a Paris on March 28th, 2006.


The brainless should not be in banking -- Willem Buiter
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 07:14:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
From the comments to the recent diary Nuclear Rating Agencies
Metatone:
Some level of the financial crisis can be laid into the Basel agreements that wrote ratings agencies into the process - i.e. AAA is safe for pension funds, etc.
This ECB rule is the same mistake writ large. I understand the urge to invoke an outside agency on country ratings - it helps pretend things are "not political" - but the reality is that the ratings agencies are dominated by an ideology that is in fact very political.

Alas, the Brussels-Frankfurt Consensus is just another genetic mutation of the Washington Consensus, so the ECB is quite comfortable with the political ideology of the ratings agencies...

Migeru
For definiteness, here is the definition of a rating agency in the Basel accords: (source: Bank of International Settlements, Basel II: International Convergence of Capital Measurement and Capital Standards: A Revised Framework - Comprehensive Version Part 2: The First Pillar - Minimum Capital Requirements)

...

The observation is usually that no agency satisfies these conditions. So, national supervisors (that is, central banks) would be well in their rights to decree that the institutions they supervise are not required to use agency credit ratings to risk-weight their assets for regulatory capital purposes.



The brainless should not be in banking -- Willem Buiter
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 07:11:59 AM EST
Absent a willingness on the part of The Fed to "decree that the institutions they supervise are not required to use agency credit ratings to risk-weight their assets for regulatory capital purposes" Congress could pass legislation forbidding all reference to credit rating agency results for five years from the date of determination by the FTC that the ratings given by a given agency were not based on appropriate risk analysis and/or were influenced by market share considerations. Among other liabilities Moody's, S & P and Fitch have arguably been guilty of false advertising.

Perhaps also those companies should be required to put a black box warning at the top of each rating report:

Caution! Reliance on the statements in this product can be harmful to your portfolio and net worth.


"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 12:12:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
As to the incentives being skewed... the rating agencies get paid for rating thingies, and if they didn't rate certain now-infamous thingies investment-grade they either got no repeat business or they didn't get paid in the first place, because said now-infamous thingies were unsellable otherwise.

The brainless should not be in banking -- Willem Buiter
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 07:16:01 AM EST
Is it possible for ratings agencies to do their job?

If they're privatised, they're a joke. If they're nationalised, you'll get some interesting national and international politics. If they're run by the likes of the IMF, that won't solve - say - the Greek problem, because ratings will be applied ideologically and inconsistently.

If it's not possible for rating agencies to do their job honestly and accurately - and I don't think it is - what are they for?

It could be interesting to make the agencies compete with each other - perhaps with bonuses for ratings that turned out to be accurate, and penalties for ratings that didn't.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 07:51:19 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Is it possible for ratings agencies to do the job the market-worshipping regulatory bodies think they can do?

It doesn't matter whether they're public or private or you make them compete in some way or other. They're unfit for the purpose the Baasel Committee wrote for them in the regulation.

The brainless should not be in banking -- Willem Buiter

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 08:33:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The heart and soul of banking is supposed to be credit (worthiness) analysis. If bankers and credit investors could be bothered to do their jobs, there would be no need for rating agencies.

Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.
by Starvid on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 09:42:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You might think banks wouldn't outsource their core business.

You would be wrong.

The brainless should not be in banking -- Willem Buiter

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 09:49:44 AM EST
[ Parent ]
That probably depends on how you define core business.

If you believe that ratings agencies exist to give ratings that are as objective as possible, in theory anyone competent can do that.

Isn't it obvious though that ratings agencies are in the marketing and market-making business, and that ratings are largely expedient and political - if not knowingly misleading and fraudulent?

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 11:11:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
And aren't banks in the marketing and market-making business?

The brainless should not be in banking -- Willem Buiter
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 11:20:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Exactly.
by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 11:41:19 AM EST
[ Parent ]
To expand - I mean that banks don't do the job we think they do and they pretend to do.

They like to present themselves as final authorities on financial and fiscal events, but they're more like joyriding teenagers in fake beards pretending to be grown-up.

What's endlessly bizarre is that everyone seems to be believe them.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 02:53:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
but at least two Nobel prizes have gone to individuals (Stiglitz and Arrow) involved in proving that objective credit analysis by lenders (or anyone else) is effectively a mathematical impossibility, which means we can't avoid, under any imaginable economic system -- not just markets or capitalism -- providing greater wealth and power to the few individuals that end up capable of compelling others in society of their credibility (and power) to determine the credibility of others.

Rating agencies are just the banker's attempt to solve the inescapable principal-agent problem given conditions of imperfect information (read: incentive to lie, even to yourself) by trying to establish an institutional wall between lenders and risk analysts by outsourcing to a pooled resource.  It makes a lot of sense and is an improvement over what existed before, but it's a problem that has no permanent institutional solution.

by santiago on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 12:05:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
One of the solutions Krugman cites is for the SEC to hand out the rating jobs to the agencies rather than allowing the institutions pick their agencies.

I suppose you could imagine, in the long term, the SEC rating the rating agencies on the accuracy of their forecasts and removing certification from ones who failed to do a good.

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 12:11:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It's a good solution for the present situation and one that I support, but preventing self-interest from becoming a part of risk and credibility analysis is, according to the compelling work of Stiglitz and Arrow, always going to be a whack-a-mole game. It's not possible to get to Krugman's "idiot proof" lending environment for more than a short time because power (compelling individuals to surrender their own interests to those of the group) and self-interest are fundamental variables in any lending process.

For example, how well has the SEC actually performed its less critical job responsibilities up to now?  So why would we expect it to do much better job with greater power and responsibility over rating agencies?

by santiago on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 12:25:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
But it's all always whack-a-mole: the system has to constantly adapt to technological innovation. This is the current problem with a lot of our systems - we design institutions in 1710 or 1810 or 1910 or 2010 and we expect it to not need changing in pretty fundamental ways as the world changes.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 12:31:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
technological innovation and unexpected or expected results of long-term iterations.

In this case, perhaps the tree of credit needs to be periodically watered with the blood of rating agencies.

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 12:32:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, adaptation is an inherent element, which is the main argument against Krugman's thesis of "idiot-proofing" the system instead of relying of skilled actors.  (I tend to support Krugman on this, however, but there is a valid counter-argument to his case.)
by santiago on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 01:01:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Also, Krugman's solution doesn't resolve the issue that most large securitized credit offerings like the big MBS deals that got us into trouble, ALREADY get rated by more than one, if not all, of the agencies, so it isn't picking the agency where a lot of the corruption occurs.  It's that there are costs and professional risks involved for any analyst and his or her employers, past, present, and future, in making a prediction that deviates too much from the common wisdom or expectations of the day. Look at the outrage and accusations of political manipulation that occurred when the agencies downgraded Irish debt, for example.  People can get fired or are otherwise punished for rating something bad that turns out to be good (and lots of times probably should be, just like doctors who operate when something less dangerous could have been done), so they tend toward status quo.  
by santiago on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 12:37:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Anonymize the ratings.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 12:42:27 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It's a good idea, but one that comes through sacrificing much ability to hold bad rating analysts accountable and making it harder to tell if there is rampant insider corruption among their SEC regulators. That might be an acceptable cost right now, where the pressures of conformity have proven so great, but a few years down the road, the crisis narrative of the day could instead return to the more familiar story of government officials in cahoots with raters and former/future employers in banks to manipulate securities values, and everyone will be wanting to hang the criminals who advocated reducing the transparency of ratings agencies. Prediction: if anonymity and more control of ratings by government were to occur, a new set of non-governmental privately-hired rating consultancies would just develop in their place and eventually hold more credibility among market participants than the low-paid "government" ones like Moodys and S&P.  
by santiago on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 12:56:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Sure, but they wouldn't hold any mandates under Basel II or the like - and the government could link the requirements for pension funds and the like  to the official rating agencies.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 12:59:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
But there's the rub.  Why would the market respond favorably to rules set up by the government?  After a few years, those rules will be said to be too "old school" and inappropriate for new developments in the industry, and too politically cumbersome to update as well, leading to a new private industry doing the same thing rating agencies do now -- qualitative, privately compensated advice to very wealthy investors.  And people will believe the ones paid by the billionaires with real skin in the game before the government bureaucrats, like they do now in every filed regulated by government ratings and analysis.
by santiago on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 01:07:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Anonymize and wikify the ratings.

And make all financial transactions public with standard non-vague on-book accounting definitions, so that anyone with a mind to can check a rating for themselves.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 02:41:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Good idea.
by santiago on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 04:19:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Why would the market respond favorably to rules set up by the government?

That's not the point. The point is the market only exists within the rules set up by government.

The brainless should not be in banking -- Willem Buiter

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 02:56:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, but the government only exists within the rules set up by other social forces, one of which today is a shared, deep core belief that markets are both the default and preferred way of organizing things.
by santiago on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 04:19:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
And people will believe the ones paid by the billionaires with real skin in the game before the government bureaucrats, like they do now in every filed regulated by government ratings and analysis.

"People" and "wealthy investors" can believe whatever they want. The point here is to prevent the banks from counterfeiting, not to prevent market-worshippers from being separated from their money.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 05:15:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Agreed, but my point is that people willing to risk their money -- including governments in many cases -- will just ignore the cumbersome US government paid rating agencies anyway and go with the private ones, like they do now.
by santiago on Tue Apr 27th, 2010 at 03:39:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It's possible to pseudo-anonymise the ratings: Have a central database, Alice, where every registered rater and rating agency are assigned random alphanumeric codes, another database, Beatrice, where every report is assigned tied to the alphanumeric codes representing the author(s) and their affiliation(s).

N months after a rating has been issued (where N possibly depends on the type of rating), the rating is compared to the actual reality. This information is then input into the Beatrice database.

The people who run the Beatrice database can then mine the now blinded data for noteworthy patterns. Any suspicious patterns discovered can be analysed independently, and only if they are actually damning is the Alice database contacted for retrieval of the identity of the suspicious author(s) and/or institution(s).

That's roughly analogous to how you'd blind a medical trial. It's not idiot-proof (no system is, and even if it were, the universe is continually working on inventing more creative idiots), and it's certainly not fraud-proof either (no institution in this universe can be made completely fraud-proof), but it would be head and shoulders above what we currently have.

(Assuming you even need rating agencies at all...)

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 05:09:34 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Rating agencies are just the banker's attempt to solve the inescapable principal-agent problem given conditions of imperfect information (read: incentive to lie, even to yourself) by trying to establish an institutional wall between lenders and risk analysts by outsourcing to a pooled resource.  It makes a lot of sense and is an improvement over what existed before, but it's a problem that has no permanent institutional solution.
This is a great insight, thank you.

The brainless should not be in banking -- Willem Buiter
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 12:28:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't get it. Why can't the lender and the risk analyst be the same person/institution?

Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.
by Starvid on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 01:06:07 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Becuase they can short and/or insure their own loans if the insurance and/or short is in danger of becoming more profitable than the potential loan loss.

And without proper regulation and oversight they might be encouraged to do so.

Hypothetically.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 02:51:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Hypothetically? Hasn't the Great Vampire Squid already done just that?

The brainless should not be in banking -- Willem Buiter
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 02:57:05 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I was being ironic. :)
by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 03:18:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
So, uh, can't we just ban that?

And how in gods name can they short a non-securitised loan they have issued themselves?

Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.

by Starvid on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 04:04:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
One way is to swap the interest and principle payments for the loan bank A made for the interest and principle payments of a different loan that bank B made. And banning that, or regulating it very severely rather, is precisely what is being proposed in the US banking reform legislation in Sen. Blanche Lincoln's version. The banking industry is resisting it full bore, however, since that kind of insurance trading is how so many US banks posted their most profitable years on record last year, during the worst banking crisis in 70 years.
by santiago on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 04:32:05 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Becuase they can short and/or insure their own loans if the insurance and/or short is in danger of becoming more profitable than the potential loan loss.

This, however, requires that the sucker who is on the other end of the deal hasn't done his risk analysis properly.

Which really speaks more to the need for keeping widows and orphans out of the capital markets than to any need to rein in the capital markets' tendencies to separate suckers from their money. Because the former is possible - the latter may very well not be.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 05:19:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
For the same reason your accountant and your auditor cannot be the same person.

The brainless should not be in banking -- Willem Buiter
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 02:55:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Rating agencies are just the banker's attempt to solve the inescapable principal-agent problem given conditions of imperfect information (read: incentive to lie, even to yourself) by trying to establish an institutional wall between lenders and risk analysts by outsourcing to a pooled resource. It makes a lot of sense and is an improvement over what existed before

The problem isn't, in and of itself, that the credit rating is outsourced.

The problem is that the credit rating - which, like all risk analysis is inherently (partly) political suddenly gets treated like an objective fact simply by the invocation of an Our Standards Are Poor "AAA" rating.

In that respect, it makes less sense than keeping it in-house: As long as it is done in-house, everybody who has eyes to see with will realise that the risk analysis is at least partly a matter of political fiat. By outsourcing it to a third party, it becomes easier to convince yourself that the resulting rating is an objective fact.

Even if we take as read that performing the political process of risk evaluation in a different organisational entity gives you objectively better data quality (something that is not altogether self-evident), it is perfectly possible that this superior data quality comes at a price of less competent and cautious data processing. And the quality of a decision is limited by the worst of the data and the protocols that deal with the data.

But I may be biased by the fact that I prefer to work with data whose pedigree I know...

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 04:06:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Quite true, but often it comes down to a trade off between trust and worst quality data.  If you believe that your counter-party in a deal has an incentive to withhold some of the great data they have from you in strategic ways, then it's probably a good idea to just assume they are withholding key data. A somewhat more independent appraiser, even if flawed, is likely to be better than the one you must assume, a priori, is lying to you.
by santiago on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 04:51:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
If you're not allowed to see the underlying data, you don't buy the piece of paper. If they don't show you all the data you need, they are either lying or incompetent at data collection, and you don't buy the piece of paper.

Seems simple enough.

(Yeah, that would kill the entire securitisation market dead. That is a feature, not a bug.)

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 05:30:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yeah, it's called due diligence...

The brainless should not be in banking -- Willem Buiter
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 05:42:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
But due diligence is not what rating agencies do.  It's what investors are supposed to do. Rating agencies are just supposed to predict the odds of default relative to alternative investments, assuming that what they've been informed about underlying collateral is true, which is just one piece of due diligence that a responsible investor is supposed to take into account.  
by santiago on Tue Apr 27th, 2010 at 10:37:23 AM EST
[ Parent ]
But due diligence is not what rating agencies do.

Well, that's quite clearly true.

Whether they should have been doing it is, hopefully, something that will be decided in the course of a fair an honest criminal trial.

Rating agencies are just supposed to predict the odds of default relative to alternative investments, assuming that what they've been informed about underlying collateral is true,

Then rating agencies are worth fuck all, if you'll excuse my French.

You need to see the underlying data to determine whether it is plausible. If the rating agencies are permitted to take the truth of the underlying data as read, then the investor still has to perform an independent analysis of the data. And once you're looking at the data yourself anyway, you might as well run the full battery of tests.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Tue Apr 27th, 2010 at 10:43:15 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I agree completely. Rating agencies aren't worth much by themselves, so the idea propogated in Basel or in current policy reforms that we can regulate risk by fixing it somehow to the judgments of analysts at leading rating agencies is inherently flawed. Basic due diligence means that investors themselves should have their own look a things before they buy, regardless of what third party bookmakers might opine about odds.
by santiago on Tue Apr 27th, 2010 at 11:22:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
To clarify, rating agencies are supposed to provide independent analysis of risk in order to solve the problem of people misrepresenting to others what their own data mean by creating a common means of comparison. They are supposed to prevent people from lying in the interpretation of data, not prevent people from actually lying about the data themselves.  Stopping people from cooking the books is what auditors and other regulators do. But cooking the books is not what is given as the cause of the Great Recession -- bad and biased interpretation of the real risks of failure are.  It's the risk ratings that failed, not the auditors.
by santiago on Tue Apr 27th, 2010 at 11:44:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
No, usually it's just too expensive to pull large data sets like that, so you only do it if you know the person who requested it has the capability of making sense of it.  Few do, since it requires a lot of IT as and finance skills and specialized equipment to analyze large financial data sets. The risk is that someone will look at it and come to the wrong conclusions because they don't know what the data mean.  That said, however, the better purveyors of things like mortgage backed securities, such as GMAC,  did provide useful, detailed data for public inspection accessible by website on each security.  It may have made their securities more valuable in the marketplace, but those securities went bust just like everyone else's, so it wasn't lack of underlying data that kept rating agencies in the dark -- they were selling these things as "sub" prime and "alternate" prime securities after all -- completely open about the fact that these things were backed by junk.  The AAA ratings came from the way bond tranches were organized and insured so that even if things went bad, some investors would still get paid before others (and mostly still are) so that their risk was minimal.  More underlying data about the loans could have added nothing to a rating agencies' judgment, since the rating has almost nothing to do with underlying data about individual loans.
by santiago on Tue Apr 27th, 2010 at 10:26:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
If you're unable to conduct an independent risk assessment because the piece of paper is too complicated, then you do not buy the piece of paper.

If you're an institutional investor then you should have that capability, unless the security in question is excessively complicated (in which case you don't want to buy it). If you're not an institutional investor, then you shouldn't be playing in the capital markets with money you can't afford to lose.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Tue Apr 27th, 2010 at 10:32:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Rating agencies like S&P don't buy anything and their ratings have almost nothing to do with checking underlying data on securities.  They just set the odds based on reported information.  Institutional investors, on the other hand, should have the capability of analyzing the data before they buy anything, and most did.  But it still didn't save them from getting burned because lack of data wasn't the problem.  It was their beliefs and models about how the world worked that were wrong.
by santiago on Tue Apr 27th, 2010 at 10:43:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Institutional investors, on the other hand, should have the capability of analyzing the data before they buy anything, and most did.

Did have the capability, or did use the capability?

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Tue Apr 27th, 2010 at 01:13:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You can drag a horse to water ...
by santiago on Tue Apr 27th, 2010 at 03:41:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The heart and soul of banking is supposed to be credit (worthiness) analysis. If bankers and credit investors could be bothered to do their jobs, there would be no need for rating agencies.

Amen!

If you need a credit rating agency to tell you what the risk is on a piece of paper, then you don't want to buy that piece of paper. It really is that simple.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 03:48:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
But that depends on your alternatives.  It's usually not a choice between buying a piece of paper and doing nothing.  It's usually a choice between buying a piece of paper containing lots of uncertainties, and doing something else (including nothing) also containing lots of uncertainties. The rating agency provides a reference point for checking your own judgments between two or more alternatives.
by santiago on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 04:59:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You can always cash out.

And at any rate, the people you need to talk to in order to evaluate the risks isn't the bean-counters, it's the engineers. The bean-counters have to rely on the engineers for their uncertainties anyway, so you might as well cut out the middleman.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 05:25:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Cash is just another alternative with lots of uncertainties. Look at how exchange rates fluctuate, and how the Chinese bemoan the likely loss of value of their currency reserves when they eventually have change their currency pegs.

You need both, because engineers don't have ways of thinking how the financial world, which is a social model not a physical one.  They just have the hard data and knowledge about how to manipulate and analyze it.  

by santiago on Tue Apr 27th, 2010 at 10:52:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You pay for your food in cash, not in Microsoft stock or structured investment vehicles.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Tue Apr 27th, 2010 at 01:14:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Quite true, which means that cashing out might be a risk-free option, but only for the very short term.  Anything longer than that and you have to take account of the risk of getting robbed, money losing value, missing out on appreciation that your neighbors are getting, etc. It's likely the case that the risk of holding cash, if you're American, Japanese, or European, is about as high as the risk of holding a US Treasury bond, which can by judged, ideally, against other AAA rated opportunities for securing your wealth.
by santiago on Tue Apr 27th, 2010 at 02:49:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You live in the short term.

If you have enough money to worry about it losing value due to inflation, then I really can't get worked up about you losing some of it to the capital market piranhas.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Tue Apr 27th, 2010 at 02:59:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Which is why I keep arguing that the credit crisis is mainly a problem for the rich.  But what complicates matters is that social savings also has to invest and save in order to provide for pensions and other benefits, and, like hedge funds for the rich, public pension managers also need to optimize, under time constraints, where and how they secure their members wealth, so they rely heavily analysis of risk such as that provided by rating agencies.
by santiago on Tue Apr 27th, 2010 at 03:15:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Which is why I keep arguing that the credit crisis is mainly a problem for the rich.

The credit crisis should have been mainly a problem for the rich. The problem is that the rich are being allowed to strangle the real economy to make up for the shortfall in their fictitious funny-money returns.

As long as you vest political control of the production process with the people who make money, rather than the people who make goods, a crisis in the monetary system will be a problem for the poor.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Tue Apr 27th, 2010 at 10:06:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Or just do your own credit analysis. Analysing a simple corporate bond isn't much harder than analysing the stock of said company. Sure, it's pretty hard to figure out what the real value of it is (compared to the market value), but it's a lot easier to evaluate if the company is at a considerable or neglible risk of bankruptcy, which is after all what matters to credit investors as you have no part in the upside.

And if you can't decide what the risk of bankruptcy is because the company has some complex or convoluted business model, don't buy the bond. There are lots of other fishes in the sea.

Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.

by Starvid on Tue Apr 27th, 2010 at 05:44:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, but that doesn't always help answer the question of whether Bond A, which looks pretty safe by your own detailed analysis, is better or worse than Bond B.  For that, it's valuable to have a comparative standard for the riskiness of assets, which is, really, the only things rating agencies are paid to do.      
by santiago on Tue Apr 27th, 2010 at 02:52:30 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, but that doesn't always help answer the question of whether Bond A, which looks pretty safe by your own detailed analysis, is better or worse than Bond B.

Why do you want to know that? If Bond A is an acceptable investment, then take it. A bird in the hand, and all that...

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Tue Apr 27th, 2010 at 03:02:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Because Bond B might be offering a better rate of return. So if it is as safe as Bond A, then that's some evidence that it might be a better place to park your money.
by santiago on Tue Apr 27th, 2010 at 03:09:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Possibly. But is it sufficiently better to justify the time and effort to perform due diligence on it?

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Tue Apr 27th, 2010 at 03:14:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
No, probably not, which is why individuals don't usually invest in bonds -- institutions do.  For individuals, cash is probably about as safe as bonds, but for billionaire institutions, including governments and non-profit foundations who have been burned in the credit crisis, holding cash is usually much more expensive compared to holding low-risk bonds.
by santiago on Tue Apr 27th, 2010 at 03:21:34 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That makes sense until you assume that bankers have an incentive to lie to each other and to their investors and customers. Information is power, especially when it is strategically withheld from a negotiation. Credit agencies are a form of an attempt at transparency between two or more counter-parties who shouldn't trust each other.  There may be other ways of doing the same thing, but encouraging parties who should not trust each other to so is the purpose that must be fulfilled by any alternative.
by santiago on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 05:09:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
In my experience, external ratings are just a way for bankers to be lazy and not properly do their risk analysis job, instead using socially and officially sanctioned off-the-shelf analysis.

There is nothing in agency ratings that banks (with its commercial and credit depts providing the requisite opposing perspectives) cannot do themselves correctly. In fact, using ratings means outsourcing the key function of the bank: risk assessment.

Wind power

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Wed Apr 28th, 2010 at 11:50:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Reposting from today's Salon:

Bankers Said `Anything' to Get High Rating, S&P Ex-Analyst Says - Bloomberg.com

Ng, who no longer works in the rating business, said in a telephone interview April 23 that while the Senate documents contain an "incomplete record," they show how banks pressured credit raters to lower standards as they created collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs, during the housing boom.

"The bankers would say anything to get what they needed into their deals," Ng, 47, said. "Goldman is very good at looking at every deal; every CDO that's ever been issued." Ng said the perception among professionals in the ratings business was that the bank had a team that would look for "inconsistencies across different deals and use that to strong- arm Moody's, Fitch and S&P to change their criteria."



"Ce qui vient au monde pour ne rien troubler ne mérite ni égards ni patience." René Char
by Melanchthon on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 07:58:54 AM EST
Recall: The Two Documents Everyone Should Read to Better Understand the Crisis (William K. Black on HuffPo, February 25, 2009)
The first document everyone should read is by S&P, the largest of the rating agencies. The context of the document is that a professional credit rater has told his superiors that he needs to examine the mortgage loan files to evaluate the risk of a complex financial derivative whose risk and market value depend on the credit quality of the nonprime mortgages "underlying" the derivative. A senior manager sends a blistering reply with this forceful punctuation:
Any request for loan level tapes is TOTALLY UNREASONABLE!!! Most investors don't have it and can't provide it. [W]e MUST produce a credit estimate. It is your responsibility to provide those credit estimates and your responsibility to devise some method for doing so.
Fraud is the principal credit risk of nonprime mortgage lending. It is impossible to detect fraud without reviewing a sample of the loan files. Paper loan files are bulky, so they are photographed and the images are stored on computer tapes. Unfortunately, "most investors" (the large commercial and investment banks that purchased nonprime loans and pooled them to create financial derivatives) did not review the loan files before purchasing nonprime loans and did not even require the lender to provide loan tapes.
This article was seen on ET when it came out, of course...

The brainless should not be in banking -- Willem Buiter
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 08:37:24 AM EST
who's wagging? rating agencies have all rights to pen their assesments and be open to criticism. their marks however should reflect market conditions.

this was not the case - many developing nations now place their bonds at rates higher than developed yet their grades from S&P, Moody and Fitch are far far lower.

take Egypt which placed recently 1.5 bln doll bonds cheaper than Greece which still enjoy A rating.
Or Russia which sold 5.5 bln bonds at 3% (5 year) and 4.8% (10 years) which are lower than New Zealand or Australia's bonds yet "Big 3" still do not see reason why they should change BBB rating.

while grading sovereign debt by "Big 3" is suspect to political influence rating of corporate borrowers was the most glaring issue of corruption and conflict of interests.

that's why I urged (on all kind of forums) long ago to start investigation in activities of "Big 3" rating agencies. they should be severely punished if found guilty and possibly their licences should be suspended.

there will be new rating agencies in the market but they will be more cautious and transparent.

by FarEasterner on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 06:13:51 PM EST
many developing nations now place their bonds at rates higher than developed yet their grades from S&P, Moody and Fitch are far far lower.

This is a red herring - credit ratings are supposed to be indicative of the default risk, not a guide to picking the best investments (something that would depend on your individual risk preference even if risk could be objectively analysed).

There's no doubt that the ratings agencies are political actors - indeed there's no way they can't be political actors. Equally, there's no doubt that they are deeply corrupt. But demanding that they upgrade debt because of higher interest rates is nonsense - at best, the interest rate is irrelevant to the credit rating; at worst, higher interest rates drive up default risk, thereby worsening the credit rating.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 07:03:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
then their rating should reflect current default swaps conditions

however on this market (as you say credit rating is indication of default risk) Greece and other developed countries's debt is also rated worse than developing nations debt.

why Greece still has A rating?

by FarEasterner on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 07:26:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You have far too much faith in the credit default swap market. The CDS market is just as broken as the rating agencies.

But anyway, you're asking the tail to wag the dog. If both the credit rating system and the credit default swap market functioned as advertised, the credit default swap market should be following the credit ratings, not the other way around.

Another point here is that even if both the rating agencies and the CDS markets functioned as advertised, the participants may well have differing political analyses. If the ratings agencies believe that the Greek sovereign debt is covered by an implicit guarantee from Germany, this will be reflected in the ratings. If the price-setting players on the CDS market do not believe this, then their bid and ask prices will reflect their different assumptions about the probability of a bailout.

Of course, this entire discussion is somewhat akin to arguing about the number of angels than can fit on a pinhead, since both the credit rating agencies and the credit default swap markets are obviously broken and being gamed rather blatantly.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 07:39:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
In your view credit rating is "the dog" and market is "the tail"?

I ask the dog (market) to wag the tail (credit rating) not other way round.

As for Greece - beliefs that some nice aunty will back your cooked books full of debts is irrational to say the least.

If they play fairly than many developing nations's credit ratings should be in the junk category.

Yet, even after IMF bailouts they still enjoy A ratings from rating agencies.

So can be only one solution - dump the rating agencies for all purposes.

And, one more thing - I did not ask to "upgrade the debt" of developing nations as you said before. I asked for fair play and reflection of market conditions, not irrational "beliefs".

by FarEasterner on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 08:05:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
sorry, read "developed" instead of "developing"
by FarEasterner on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 08:06:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
FarEasterner:
As for Greece - beliefs that some nice aunty will back your cooked books full of debts is irrational to say the least.

Possibly. But it seems to be SOP for the bankers.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 08:11:05 PM EST
[ Parent ]
First, Greece's credit rating is low Bs last I saw.

Second, the bankers I thought were fighting against transparency in the credit default swap market. They want to keep the deals private. So, how would anyone know what's out there?

Third, Greece had 100% debt to GDP for the last decade. Nothing changed. So, what was cooking in those Greek books, I wonder?  Seems to me they've had the same level of debt, and the only change is that the market is now illiquid and risk averse (i.e. no one is lending to Greece).

I want to get to the bottom of this cooked book idea because it hides a lot of things.

by Upstate NY on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 10:14:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
las time I heard last week S&P's lowered Greek credit rating from double A to single A.
by FarEasterner on Tue Apr 27th, 2010 at 05:31:47 AM EST
[ Parent ]
In your view credit rating is "the dog" and market is "the tail"?

No, in my view the CDS market is a scam, and the credit rating agencies are in the business of advertisement, not analysis.

But if things worked as advertised, the rating agencies would be the dog and the CDS market would be the tail: The rating agencies should have more information than the market participants (that's the only economic justification for having rating agencies in the first place), so the market should take note of their opinions, not the other way around. If the rating agencies just slavishly follow the CDS market, then you might as well abolish the rating agencies and just use the market spread for credit default swaps instead.

As for Greece - beliefs that some nice aunty will back your cooked books full of debts is irrational to say the least.

Not when the nice aunty in question is in a currency union with you.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Mon Apr 26th, 2010 at 11:17:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
everybody can use CDS data right now. And rating agencies have the right to publish their assesments.

However your defense of their irrational grading policy sounds unconvincing.

Their ratings is pure scam and unlike manipulations on CDS market their questionable rates stand exposed.

by FarEasterner on Tue Apr 27th, 2010 at 05:39:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There is no regulated CDS market, it's all over the counter and dominated by about 5 issuers of CDS. CDS market players have resisted tooth and nail any suggestion of central clearinghouses for CDS, or any of a number of more intrusive regulatory suggestions such as requiring the delivery of a defaulted bond in order to collect the value of a CDS.

CDS issuers have been shown repeatedly to be inadequately capitalised to face an actual default on the underlying, which smells of a scam where CDS premiums are collected with no intention of paying up.

The brainless should not be in banking -- Willem Buiter

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Apr 27th, 2010 at 05:56:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
everybody can use CDS data right now.

Even if that were true, which as Mig points out below it isn't, capital market prices are completely worthless for estimating things about the real economy.

And rating agencies have the right to publish their assesments.

But they won't, because that would demonstrate to all the world that their ratings are advertising campaigns rather than serious analysis.

However your defense of their irrational grading policy sounds unconvincing.

I'm not defending it. I'm saying that bad as the ratings agencies undoubtedly are, the capital markets are even worse. So you can't use data from the capital markets to indict the rating agencies.

What you can use to indict the rating agencies is the fact that they've been wrong on any issue of any real importance that they have commented on. That is an indictment that matters.

The failure of their assessments to correlate with the whims of the capital markets is worth only a shrug, since the whims of the capital markets say nothing at all about the real economics of the activity they are supposed to reflect.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Tue Apr 27th, 2010 at 10:03:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I asked for fair play and reflection of market conditions, not irrational "beliefs".

You have an irrational belief in market prices.

The brainless should not be in banking -- Willem Buiter

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Apr 27th, 2010 at 01:57:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]
another defender of S&P's, Moody's and Fitch?

welcome to the fiercely competitive field of uncovincing defenders of their rating scams.

by FarEasterner on Tue Apr 27th, 2010 at 05:41:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Have you read the rest of my comments where I advocate that regulators strip the rating agencies of their role in determining credit ratings of bank holdings for regulatory capital purposes?

Market prices are known not to be predictors of anything - they tell you how much it costs you to hedge particular exposures as of right now, and in small volumes. They don't tell you what the probability of anything is. In particular, CDS spreads are not probabilities of default.

The probabilities of default quoted as equivalent to various credit ratings are also nonsense, as I have said before on this forum.

The brainless should not be in banking -- Willem Buiter

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Apr 27th, 2010 at 05:52:46 AM EST
[ Parent ]
rating should reflect current default swaps

Then why bother with ratings? Just use CDS spreads.

The answer is partly that both international banking regulation and domestic regulation of things like mutual pension funds have agency credit ratings written into them.

The brainless should not be in banking -- Willem Buiter

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Apr 27th, 2010 at 01:55:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
John Mauldin gives a comment in today's Outside the Box from Paul McCulley, GM at Pimco: The debt crisis (the shadow banking system, subprime mortgages, SIVs, etc.) was the equivalent of an under-age drinking party with the rating agencies handing out fake IDs.

I haven't read the rest of the article yet, but a quick scan is "Europe is Doomed" and will fall the like the rest of these who do not see the "US Only" sign on the God Given Glory Chair of Manifest Destiny.

Never underestimate their intelligence, always underestimate their knowledge.

Frank Delaney ~ Ireland

by siegestate (siegestate or beyondwarispeace.com) on Tue Apr 27th, 2010 at 07:20:01 AM EST


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