On Tuesday the SEC is holding a roundtable on credit ratings to address the ongoing question of ratings shopping. Rating shopping is when a bond issuer shops its deal to various credit rating agencies to see who will assign the highest rating. The rating agencies that will assign the best ratings are given the business and the rating fee. Here is how the SEC describes its event:
It’s the season for credit rating default data. Credit rating agencies issue this data about bonds that defaulted, along with the ratings those bonds had been given. Investors can use this data to see how much default risk they assume when they purchase bonds rated AAA or A or B. It’s a quantitative risk road map for bonds.
The long awaited prosecution against a U.S. credit rating has finally arrived. The Department of Justice filed a civil suit this week alleging that Standard & Poor’s committed mail and wire fraud and defrauded investors with ratings of residential mortgage backed securities (RMBS) and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs). These securities are known in regulatory and market parlance as “asset backed securities” because loans or bonds are bundled into larger, more complex securities. Until this market collapsed in the 2008 financial crisis, it was the source of great profits for banks, investors and credit rating agencies. It also accelerated the collapse of the financial system as the securities were sold around the world to increasingly less sophisticated investors.
Moody’s released it’s long awaited opinion of Assured Guaranty’s creditworthiness on January 17th. Moody’s analysts were not feeling good about the subsidiary that insures the bonds of municipalities. They pushed the rating down three notches from Aa3 to A2. The Bond Buyer noted that “fundamental challenges inherent in the business model make a return to the Aa rating level unlikely.” Zap and you are dead.
The SEC is out with its second annual examination of “Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations,” otherwise known as credit rating agencies. A little known 2006 law, the Credit Rating Agency Reform Act, gave broad authority to the SEC to inspect raters as if they were broker dealers, and is what empowers the SEC to annually inspect raters. According to the law, raters must:
Darrell Preston of Bloomberg News wrote a great piece comparing the yields on trades of comparably rated corporate and municipal bonds. He highlighted that corporate bonds have a much higher risk of default than municipal bonds but have similar yields. His analysis suggests that risk is not being properly priced if in fact ratings between asset classes are comparable and that municipal issuers are paying interest rates that are too high.
The Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board’s data platform for municipal bonds, EMMA, recently added credit ratings from Fitch and Standard & Poors to the system. This makes it really simple for investors to get a snapshot of the relative risk of one bond over another when doing research.
The New York Times really needs to improve the quality of its reporting on the municipal bond market. Mary Williams Walsh makes such a terrible hash of the situation in Jefferson County, Alabama, that she is bound to set off another muniland hysteria in the mold of Meredith Whitney.
This is an absolutely perfect muniland discussion between Matt Fabian of Municipal Market Advisors, Tom Keene of Bloomberg Television and David Kotok, chief investment officer at Cumberland Advisors. For people unfamiliar with the muni market it really shows how fluid and dynamic conditions are for state and local issuers. It’s really worth listening to several times.