M & A wrap: S&P chief downgraded

The chief of Standard & Poor’s will step down next month, to be replaced by a senior Citibank executive, in a move announced a few weeks after the credit rating agency downgraded U.S. government debt and sparked a row with Washington.

Australian brewer Foster’s Group put pressure on SABMiller to raise its $10 billion hostile takeover offer on Tuesday, unveiling a $521 million capital return to shareholders.

Deutsche Bank AG knew in 2006 that a mortgage company it was preparing to buy lied to the U.S. government about its mortgages, yet went ahead with the purchase and should be held financially responsible, the Justice Department said on Monday.

Mortgage-backed securities are also at the center of another investigation of a prominent bank, as Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein has hired high-profile Washington defense attorney Reid Weingarten to represent him as the Justice Department looks further into Goldman’s role in the financial crisis.

NYT’s DealBook contributor Peter Henning called the Goldman investigation an “overreaction,” adding that until subpoenas are issued, the news that “Mr. Blankfein has hired his own lawyer does not tell us much, other than that he did what every other corporate executive involved in an investigation would do.”

Did the Oracle just blink?

It may have only been about two percent of his holdings in the rating agency, but Warren Buffett’s decision to pare back his stake of Moody’s smacks of capitulation after a Manhattan judge ruled that just because they write opinions does not necessarily afford the much-maligned credit grading industry first-amendment protection.

Buffett‘s Berkshire Hathaway said in a filing it had sold 794,388 Moody’s shares on Sept. 1 and Sept. 2, chiseling its holding down to 39,219,312 shares. This isn’t the first time the Oracle of Omaha has seen fit to shave his share of the rating agency. Many will say these incremental measures are not a signal of a loss of faith in the business. But one could argue that the small sales serve less of a financial purpose than they signal slipping confidence. Even Buffett has said Moody’s damaged its brand by providing inaccurate ratings of SIVs, CDOs, CDSs and ETCs — the acronyms of mass financial destruction in the markets’ meltdown.

U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin in Manhattan said ratings on notes sold privately to a “select” group of investors were not “matters of public concern” deserving of traditionally broad protection under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Shares of both Moody’s and McGraw-Hill, which owns Standard and Poor’s, slid in response.

The rising and falling default rate

Stock photo of Javier Ramirez is seen through the crystal ball while practicing before a show in the national jugglers encounter in Concepcion, 500 km from Santiago. Picture taken March 12, 2004.  	 REUTERS/STR NewRating agencies Moody’s and S&P regularly publish figures on how many companies have defaulted on their debt, and the numbers are rising fast.

S&P’s latest report, which came out on Thursday, shows the global speculative-grade bond default rate increased to 8.58% in July, up slightly on June, and a massive hike on the record low of 0.79% hit in November 2007.

It is less clear what will happen next. Earlier this year the agencies predicted defaults amongst speculative grade borrowers could reach 20 percent — a huge increase — but now agencies have rowed back and are painting a slightly less bleak picture.