Cutting the ratings agencies the tiniest bit of slack

After polluting the global financial system with hundreds of billions of dollars of overrated mortgage-backed securities and helping bring down the world economy, the credit rating agencies have been struggling mightily to repair their reputations. It’s been an uphill climb, and they were dealt another blow on Friday when a Bloomberg piece detailed academic research showing how fees influenced the assignment of higher ratings. Municipal issuers got the harshest ratings because they paid the lowest fees, according to the article.

Although higher fees definitely played a part in inflated ratings, I think there are a lot more powerful market forces at work than the study and article suggest. The academic study that the Bloomberg piece highlighted – Jess Cornaggia, Kimberly Cornaggia and John Hund’s “Credit ratings across asset classes: A ≡ A?” — focused on 30 years of data from one rating agency, Moody’s. From that data, the authors extrapolated the results to all the major raters. Here’s what Bloomberg had to say:

While the study was based on Moody’s data, it would find about identical results with data from S&P and Fitch because each firm’s grades closely track each other, Cornaggia said in an Oct. 14 e-mail.

If you work around credit markets you realize that although raters can track each other, there are often “split ratings,” or situations where the raters assign different levels to the same security or issuer. Another difference between the raters is that some move faster than others to downgrade. Fitch is typically known as the most aggressive rater in downgrading.

Practically every law and regulation that references credit ratings has a requirement for two ratings. If every rater were identical to the others, it would be redundant for laws to require two. The need for two ratings reflects the undesirability of relying on only one agency.

Cities: educated and indebted

Thomson Reuters Municipal Market Data muniland expert Daniel Berger reminded me of a report that I had forgotten about that shows the correlations between the low credit ratings of Ohio’s cities and the cities’ very low levels of college graduates. Dan posits that Ohio, as part of America’s Rust Belt, didn’t require high levels of education for staff at its manufacturing plants and, accordingly, didn’t develop large college-educated workforces. As manufacturing moved out of the region, it left behind cities where the workforce was not attractive to high-tech industries and other sectors that required more educated workers. The cities declined and their credit ratings suffered. Such is the devastating effect of globalization.

I thought it might be interesting to chart some of the data in Daniel’s report (page 6) for America’s largest cities. Interestingly the data suggests that, contrary to Daniel’s findings for Ohio cities, that the more educated a city is, the lower its credit rating (see chart above). Or put another way, the dumb cities are getting higher grades. Quelle surprise!

After posing this question on Twitter two responses stuck out:

Morally Bankrupt @groditi Morally Bankrupt  @cate_long maybe debt size? Do cities tend to borrow more as education levels rise?

Political heat at S&P for ratings downgrades?

The Daily Show – What Are You Friggin’ Nuts Over There?


S&P replaces president after U.S. downgrade

The board of directors of McGraw-Hill met Monday and voted to oust Deven Sharma as president of their Standard & Poor’s rating division. This forced resignation comes approximately three weeks after S&P downgraded the debt of the United States. Jon Stewart, in the clip above, jokes about political pressure brought to bear on the company by the U.S. government. I think he is spot on with his humor.

Last week the U.S. Department of Justice just happened to discuss publicly an investigation of S&P and the other major raters about ratings assigned before the financial crisis to mortgage-backed securities, even though this investigation has been ongoing since 2009. Why the sudden need to reiterate this publicly? S&P’s downgrade was a brave action. It’s a pity that Deven Sharma has to pay for it with his job. As I wrote previously:

Standard & Poor’s took one of the bravest actions that I’ve ever seen a rater take when it downgraded the United States one notch. Furthermore, this marks a new beginning for accurate credit analysis and truth in fixed-income markets. Keep speaking the truth, S&P.

Does a downgrade cost anything?

The debt of the United States was downgraded by Standard & Poor’s several weeks ago, but the price of U.S. Treasuries have skyrocketed since then. This confuses many people because a baseline relationship in the fixed-income markets is that lower-rated, less-creditworthy bonds will be relatively cheap and investors will demand higher interest rates to compensate for additional risk.

To see this bond market truism, it’s much more instructive to look at the downgrade of the debt of New Jersey. Fitch lowered the state’s credit rating Wednesday citing heavy debt and benefit obligations. This followed downgrades by Moody’s and S&P earlier in the year. Municipal bond and credit default swap markets didn’t like this third downgrade and did what you would expect them to do: they required more yield in the case of cash bonds and more payment in the case of credit default swaps.

The graph above charts muni CDS prices for New Jersey (data supplied by Markit). You can see the move up in CDS prices began in June when Governor Christie and the state legislature made the final run to their agreement on the fiscal 2011 budget, which began on July 1. The uncertainty and contentiousness of the process must have spooked investors and dealers.

Fitch gives USA its stamp of approval

Fitch leaves munis tied to U.S. rating at AAA, S&P downgrades

Fitch Ratings, one of the three major rating agencies and the one considered the most accurate by institutional investors, has affirmed the credit rating of the debt of the United States at AAA. As a follow-on to this action they have also maintained the AAA credit rating of municipal entities tied to U.S. Treasuries.

Going in the opposite direction, Standard & Poor’s downgraded the investment portfolio of the city of Los Angeles to AA+ because it holds 80% of its assets in U.S. Treasuries.  This follows S&P’s recent downgrade of U.S. Treasuries to AA+. The Bond Buyer reports what happened next:

Los Angeles has dropped Standard & Poor’s from rating its $7 billion investment portfolio after the agency downgraded it along with the United States last week.

The swirl of ratings and CDS

The Wall Street Journal ran an odd article yesterday about the unpredictability of sovereign credit ratings that are below the investment-grade cutoff (BB+ and lower). Check out the table from the IMF of S&P’s sovereign ratings.

The WSJ article seemed to air some highly paid bond-fund managers’ whining that ratings were not a useful signal for when they should buy and sell bonds of specific countries. The complaint was also that ratings don’t include certain data sets that are important, such as fund flows in banks, and that they don’t have the agility of credit default swaps.

The guys quoted in the WSJ might be right on the data sets that raters use and they are certainly right about CDS being more agile than ratings. But ratings are not intended to mirror market sentiment like CDS does. They are supposed to stand above market panics and routs and give a 30,000 foot view of an issuer’s credit condition.

Muniland is shrinking

Although municipal tax revenues have rebounded in the last few quarters, the declines of prior years have hit state and local employment hard.  In the chart above Matt Yglesias shows the collapse of state and local revenues; with the collapse of revenues we’ve seen the loss of many muniland jobs. Now the story is pivoting to large potential job losses at the federal level.

The New York Times is reporting that:

The financially strapped U.S. Postal Service is considering cutting as many as 120,000 jobs.

Facing a second year of losses totaling $8 billion or more, the agency also wants to pull its workers out of the retirement and health benefits plans covering federal workers and set up its own benefit systems.

Jon Stewart dives into raterville

The Daily Show
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Jon Stewart’s Daily Show interview with Columbia law professor John Coffee is great. To have credit rating agencies discussed on a popular national comedy show is fantastic. The more the public knows about these powerful agencies, the better.

I generally agree with Professor Coffee but disagree with his statement that raters were the primary culprits in the financial crisis. The investment banks that created the subprime dreck and pimped the agencies to assign AAA ratings — they are the main culprits. Raters were just well-paid handmaidens to the banks which packaged mortgages. Banks also made the most profit from creating the crisis. He does identify investment banks as bad actors later in the video. Overall, an impressive performance by Professor Coffee.

I’ll write more about Professor Coffee and his adoption of my proposal for “equilivant disclosure” for bond issuers. This is the real solution to our credit rating problems. The lack of equal information flow to the ten SEC recognized raters is the true reason that S&P, Moody’s and Fitch control the ratings business.

Why the little guys can be on top

Here is a brilliant map from the Tax Foundation (via The percentages on the map indicate the amount of each state’s annual budget that goes to pay off interest on their debt. Massachusetts leads the pack in this statistic with 9.58% of their budget going towards interest payments, much higher than the average. It’s important to note that this is not a map of relative ranking of debt loads as that would look quite a bit different and have California in the lead.

After seeing this map, S&P’s announcement that cities and states can keep their AAA rating despite the U.S.’s downgrade makes more sense. The National League of Cities said the following in response to Standard & Poors’ statement:

Standard & Poor’s announcement that cities and states may keep their AAA bond ratings despite the recent downgrade of the U.S. federal government demonstrates the difference between U.S. federal debt and the municipal bond market.

Wall Street’s deepest muniland fear

Wall Street’s deepest muniland fear

Although credit rating downgrades for municipal bonds are grabbing the headlines, that is not a real worry for Wall Street. Underwriters and traders are used to adjusting their models and formulas for changes in ratings and interest rates; after all, they are extremely skilled at that. However, forces are taking aim at the way they are compensated, and that is Wall Street’s deepest muniland fear. It’s all about how they are paid to underwrite municipal bonds, and the state of Maine is leading the charge.

When states or municipalities issue bonds they use Wall Street banks to underwrite them. Wall Street banks or dealers either compete against each other for these mandates in a competitive process or one bank or dealer privately negotiates the terms of the bond offering with the issuer. A privately negotiated underwriting happens in approximately 80% of municipal bond deals. This often costs municipalities and states more in fees. Bloomberg has an outstanding piece about how the state of Maine is choosing the competitive style of bond underwriting and the political struggle that happened to get there:

Banks promote negotiated sales as letting them offer the lowest cost by tailoring the debt to specific types of investors. Yet academic studies of the municipal market show such sales often raise costs by as much as $4.80 on every $1,000 borrowed, according to Mark D. Robbins and Bill Simonsen of the University of Connecticut in West Hartford.

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