Monday, March 19, 2007

Can the Rating Agencies Be Trusted?

In a story in the New York Times on March 11, entitled Crisis Looms in Mortgages, there are dire warnings of complete market implosion that will affect the entire US economy as a result of the downgrading of credit ratings.

The [credit rating] agencies say that they are confident that their ratings reflect reality in the mortgages they have analyzed and that they have required managers of mortgage pools with risky loans in them to increase the collateral. A spokesman for S.& P. said the firm made its ratings requirements more stringent for subprime issuers last summer and that they shored up the loans as a result.

Meeting with Wall Street analysts last week, Terry McGraw, chief executive of McGraw-Hill, the parent of S.& P., said the firm does not believe that loans made in 2006 will perform “as badly as some have suggested.”

Nevertheless, some investors wonder whether the rating agencies have the stomach to downgrade these securities because of the selling stampede that would follow. Many mortgage buyers cannot hold securities that are rated below investment grade — insurance companies are an example. So if the securities were downgraded, forced selling would ensue, further pressuring an already beleaguered market.

Another consideration is the profits in mortgage ratings. Some 6.5 percent of Moody’s 2006 revenue was related to the subprime market.

Brian Clarkson, Moody’s co-chief operating officer, denied that the company hesitates to cut ratings. “We made assumptions early on that we were going to have worse performance in subprime mortgages, which is the reason we haven’t seen that many downgrades,” he said. “If we have something that is investment grade that we need to take below investment grade, we will do it.”

Interestingly, accounting conventions in mortgage securities require an investor to mark his holdings to market only when they get downgraded. So investors may be assigning higher values to their positions than they would receive if they had to go into the market and find a buyer. That delays the reckoning, some analysts say.

“There are delayed triggers in many of these investment vehicles and that is delaying the recognition of losses,” Charles Peabody, founder of Portales Partners, an independent research boutique in New York, said. “I do think the unwind is just starting. The moment of truth is not yet here.”

What will be the result of our market system if rating agencies cannot be trusted?

You can find a discussion about it at Warren Reports: From Liar's Loans to Liar's Ratings.

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