Monday, July 11, 2016
For me, the rating agencies' involvement in the global financial crisis has destroyed their credibility forever. I can no longer take their solemn pronouncements seriously, nor hear them with the reverence or contrition they imagine themselves entitled to.
The rating agencies were one of the private sector institutions charged with upholding standards of behaviour in America's financial markets, putting investors' interests ahead of their clients' and their own.
They were supposed to be a bastion against crisis and collapse, but they betrayed their trust.
The way their system works is that institutions wishing to borrow money by issuing bonds or other securities have to pay rating agencies to give those securities a rating of their credit worthiness.
The agencies' job pre-crisis was to be the hard-headed wise men who could see through the smoke and mirrors created by "innovators" on the make. They failed.
While everyone else in Wall Street was making money hand over fist, they didn't resist the temptation to get in for their cut.
They obliged their paying customers by awarding AAA credit ratings to securities subsequently exposed as "toxic debt".
In the process, they exposed the obvious conflict of interest involved in the common practice of governments attempting to protect the interests of investors and others by requiring businesses to buy "independent" certification from other businesses.
To an extent, governments around the world give the rating agencies a captive market by requiring certain organisations to hold only those securities certified as AAA.
This was how some Australian local councils got sucked into America's toxic debt crisis.
Trouble is, with this monumental blot on their record, we can no longer be sure what game the ratings agencies are playing and in whose interests they act.
In the case of government ("sovereign") borrowers, the agencies take it upon themselves to issue ratings. They then have the temerity to present the government with a bill for their services, though no self-respecting treasury pays up.
They seem to be pretty tough on government borrowers, though the lines they draw between safe and unsafe levels of debt seem pretty arbitrary.
What I wonder is if they have higher and holier standards for government than they have for their private sector fellows.
Why not? Everyone in business (and a lot of people in treasuries) know that governments, because their actions are not the product of market forces, are therefore non-rational and prone to being either mad or bad.
The agencies want us to believe their deliberations are highly scientific and sophisticated, applied consistently across the world.
But it's open to doubt how true that is.
After all, many of us believed the line that the whole towering edifice of ever-multiplying derivatives and synthetics built up before the financial crisis was the product of amazing advances in statistics and the science of finance, which had rendered us far smarter than we used to be at "managing risk".
When it comes to signalling changes in the riskiness of particular borrowers, the agencies purport to be the leaders: their vigilance causes them to be the first to see the problems looming, with the market following their lead.
But it's common for the market to turn against some borrower, leaving the agencies scrambling to adjust their ratings to fit. Are they just purveyors of conventional wisdom?
Whenever a downgrading of one of our governments is threatened, the media unfailingly assure us this would be a bad thing because the government would have to pay higher interest on its debt.
If this is still true, it's much less so than it used to be. And if there is still a premium to be paid, it's smaller than it's made to sound.
The rating agencies' loss of authority since the financial crisis is evident.
When, in 2011, in a rush of blood to the head – or maybe a touch of the megs – Standard and Poor's announced it had cut the US Government's credit rating to AA+, the other two did not follow suit and the market took not a blind bit of notice.
The yield (interest rate) on US Treasury bonds continued falling. Moral: don't try to get smart with the world's reserve currency.
But something similar happened when the three agencies downgraded Britain to AA- in the wake of the Brexit vote. Yields on British bonds have since fallen, along with those of other "sovereigns", including us.
Sometimes there are forces more powerful than a bunch of for-profit rating agencies.