The Justice Department is investigating whether the nation’s largest credit ratings agency, Standard & Poor’s, improperly rated dozens of mortgage securities in the years leading up to the financial crisis, according to two people interviewed by the government and another briefed on such interviews.
The investigation began before Standard & Poor’s cut the United States’ AAA credit rating this month, but it is likely to add fuel to the political firestorm that has surrounded that action. Lawmakers and some administration officials have since questioned the agency’s secretive process, its credibility and the competence of its analysts, claiming to have found an error in its debt calculations.
In the mortgage inquiry, the Justice Department has been asking about instances in which the company’s analysts wanted to award lower ratings on mortgage bonds but may have been overruled by other S.& P. business managers, according to the people with knowledge of the interviews. If the government finds enough evidence to support such a case, which is likely to be a civil case, it could undercut S.& P.’s longstanding claim that its analysts act independently from business concerns.
A week ago, Alex J. Pollock noted “The Delicious Irony of the Downgrade” at the Wall Street Journal:
In the wake of all the angst about Standard & Poor’s downgrading the credit of the U.S. government, we need to consider what rating agencies are. They are exactly what they themselves say they are: publishers of opinions. In other words, they are one group of scribblers among others, trying to forecast the future and its risks like hundreds of other people, naturally making many mistakes, like everybody else.
It is a delicious irony that the opinions of these particular scribblers get special weight only because the federal government has given it to them. Government regulations require financial entities to use the ratings issued by government-designated rating agencies for investment decisions. Now S&P has turned on the source of its privileged position and profits. If the government does not like the force of this disloyal pontification, that’s its own fault.
As Pollock concluded, “From an overall financial perspective, it is perfectly logical to think that internationally diversified, cash-generating, well-managed companies with low leverage are better credit risks than nationally concentrated, negative cash flow, poorly managed, highly leveraged governments.”
Heh. Of course, the triple-A rating that S&P supplied for decades helped to ease the government into mortgage equivalent of the corporate junk bond market, via the Community Reinvestment Act, begun under Jimmy Carter, wildly accelerated under Bill Clinton, and continued by President Obama.