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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Sub-Prime Crisis and the Ratings Agencies

Sub-Prime Crisis and the Ratings Agencies

Back in August, Fortune ran a story that took the ratings agencies to task for their role in the subprime mortgage crisis. A noted investor named Jim Chanos, the head of Kynikos Associates, acknowledged he had a short position in Moody's stock: "If the rating agencies will downgrade only when we can all see the losses, then why do we need the rating agencies?"

If what I read in the Sunday Business Section is true about Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's investigation and the participation of Clayton Holdings, a company based in Connecticut that vetted home loans for many investment banks, then Mr. Chanos is due for a windfall (he's already at least more than doubled his money). Apparently Clayton Holdings has provided extensive documentation to the attorney general's office in exchange for immunity that shows investment banks allegedly knew many of the loans it was packaging for unwitting investors were more risky than was disclosed. Early on in the subprime crisis when I filed the first hedge fund investor arbitration claims against Bear Stearns, we made the similar allegations regarding the firm's failure to disclose risks.

More shocking is the allegation that the investment banks never turned Clayton's due diligence reports over to ratings agencies. Instead, according to the article, "in these disclosures, underwriters typically said that loans that did not meet even lowered lending standards, called exceptions, accounted for a "significant" or "substantial" portion of the loans contained in the securities, but they offered little hard, statistical information that Clayton promised prosecutors it would provide as evidence."

Wall Street's selective disclosure to the ratings agencies is only half the story. My question is, should the ratings agencies even need such information? I thought the ratings agencies did their own due diligence. If this story is accurate, what value-added are the ratings agencies providing if they aren't able to perform their own analysis?

Later on in The New York Times story, Raymond W. McDaniel Jr., the CEO of Moody's says of the investment bank's reports: "Both the completeness and veracity was deteriorating." My question to Mr. McDaniel is how could Moody's possibly award ratings to securities based on incomplete information?

Ordinarily we would just let market forces deal with such failure. However firms like Moody's, Standard & Poors, and Fitch are granted special competitive advantages because they are part of a select group of eight companies designated as Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organization (or "NRSRO"). Based on their record, the government should not be protecting them. If there was more competition the ratings might be more predictive and less expensive. Maybe if investors had gotten their hands on Clayton's reports they would have never invested in the first place.

The fact is ratings agencies have become lagging indicators. Mr. Chanos knows this better than anyone. He was an early short-seller of Enron after investigating the firm and finding accounting irregularities. It wasn't until mid-October of 2001 that three credit-rating agencies started to warn investors of Enron's deteriorating condition, and not until Nov. 28, just days before Enron filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, that they lowered their debt ratings below "investment grade."

If the only service ratings agencies provide is assigning some combination of the first four letters in the alphabet to a security, then maybe they can be replaced by a smart preschooler.

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