The Wisdom of Ball and Chaining the Rating Agencies

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 |  Includes: GS, MCO, MS, SPGI, UBS
by: Wade Slome, CFA

After sifting through the rubble of the financial crisis of 2008-2009, Congress is spreading the blame liberally across various constituencies, including the almighty rating agencies (think of Moody’s (NYSE:MCO), Standard & Poor’s (MHP), and Fitch). The Senate recently added a proposed amendment to the financial regulation bill that would establish a government appointed panel to select a designated credit rating agency for certain debt deals. The proposal is designed to remove the inherent conflict of interest of debt issuers – such as Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (NYSE:GS), Morgan Stanley (NYSE:MS), UBS (NYSE:UBS), and others – shopping around for higher ratings in exchange for higher payments to the banks.

The credit rating agencies are not satisfied with being weighed down with a ball and chain, and apparently New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is sympathetic with the agencies. Cuomo recently subpoenaed Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Morgan Stanley, UBS and five other banks to see whether the banks misled credit-rating services about mortgage-backed securities.

Slippery Slope of Government Intervention

Many different professions, inside and outside the financial industry, provide critical advice in exchange for monetary compensation. In many industries there are inherent conflicts of interest between the professional and the end-user, and a related opinion provided by the pro may result in a bad outcome. If government intervention is the appropriate solution in the rating agency field, then maybe we should answer the following questions related to other fields before we rush to regulation:

  • Should the government control which auditors check the books of every American company because executives may opportunistically shop around for more lenient reviews of their financials?

  • Perhaps the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) should dictate which investment bank should underwrite an Initial Public Offering (IPO) or other stock issuance?

  • Maybe the government should decide which medicine or surgery should be administered by a doctor because they received funding or donations from a drug and device company?

Where do you draw the line? Is the amendment issued by Al Franken (Senator of Minnesota) a well thought out proposal to improve the conflicts of interest, or is this merely a knee-jerk reaction to sock it some greedy Wall Street-ers and solidify additional scapegoats in the global financial meltdown?

In addition to including a controversial government-led rating agency selection process, the transforming regulatory reform bill also includes a dramatic change to ban “naked” credit default swaps (CDS). As I’ve written in the past, derivatives of all types can be used to hedge (protect) or speculate (e.g., naked CDS). Singling out a specific derivative product and strategy like naked CDSs is like banning all Browning 9x19mm Hi-Power pistols, but allowing hundreds of other gun-types to be sold and used. Conceptually, proper use of a naked CDS by a trader is the same as the proper use of a gun by a recreational hunter (see my derivatives article).

Solutions

Rather than additional government intervention into the rating agency and derivative fields, perhaps additional disclosure, transparency, capital requirements, and harsher penalties can be instituted. There will always be abusers, but as we learned from the collapse of Arthur Andersen on the road to Enron’s bankruptcy, there can be cruel consequences to bad actors. If investment banks misrepresent opinions, laws can lead to severe results also. Take Jack Grubman, hypester of Worldcom stock, who was banned for life from the securities industry and forced to pay $15 million in fines. Or Henry Blodget, who too was banned from the securities industry and paid millions in fines, not to mention the $200 million in fraud damages Merrill Lynch was forced to pay.

At the end of the day, enough disclosure and transparency needs to be made available to investors so they can make their own decisions. Those institutional investors that piled into these toxic, mortgage-related securities and lost their shirts because of over-reliance on the rating agencies’ evaluations deserve to lose money. If these structures were too complex to understand, then this so-called sophisticated institutional investor base should have balked from participation. Of course, if the banks or credit agencies misrepresented the complex investments, then sure, those intermediaries should suffer the full brunt of the law.

Although weighing down the cash-rich credit rating agencies (and CDS creators) with ball and chain regulations may appease the populist sentiment in the short-run, the reduction in conflicts of interest might be overwhelmed by the unintended consequences. Now if you’ll please excuse me, I’m going to do my homework on a naked CDS related to a AAA-rated synthetic CDO (Collateralized Debt Obligation).

*Disclosure: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in MCO, MHP, GS, MS, JPM, UBS, BAC, T or any security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision.