Senate Duo Wants Quick SEC Action On Credit Raters

May 14, 2013 by Sarah Lynch

A bipartisan pair of U.S. senators urged federal securities regulators to move quickly on fundamental changes to how credit-rating agencies are compensated, a step they said will reduce the type of conflicts that helped fuel the 2007-2009 financial crisis.

In impassioned speeches during a public roundtable Tuesday at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Minnesota Democrat Al Franken and Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker accused the big three rating agencies of issuing shoddy ratings, and blamed the problems on the “issuer-pay” model in which the firms are paid by the companies they rate.

Franken read aloud excerpts from a letter written by a constituent who lost his retirement savings in the crisis, and also singled out Standard & Poor’s by reading from emails suggesting some of its analysts knew they were giving AAA ratings to junk financial products.

“The prevailing packages of the big three rating agencies can be summed up nicely by this email from an S&P official: ‘Let’s hope we are all wealthy and retired by the time this house of cards falls,'” Franken said.

The SEC has been struggling for the past few years to come up with a plan to address the “issuer-pay” model used by Moody’s Corp, McGraw-Hill Cos Inc.’s Standard & Poor’s, and Fimalac SA’s Fitch.

A congressional investigation previously concluded that the model led credit raters to give overly rosy ratings to toxic subprime mortgages leading up the crisis.

The raters disagree with that view, however, and have said any conflicts created by the compensation structure can be easily managed.

During the crafting of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law, Franken and Wicker won some bipartisan support in the U.S. Senate for a provision that would have scrapped that compensation model and replaced it with an alternative.

The alternative, which has become known as the “Franken amendment,” would have required the SEC to write rules creating an independent board charged with assigning structured product ratings.

The measure was later watered down, and instead the law called for the SEC to first study the idea, and then take action as it sees fit to protect investors.

The SEC released the congressionally mandated study late last year, in which it did not take a stand on a particular approach, and called for soliciting more input.

The roundtable, which featured more than 25 experts from rating firms, academia, companies, non-profit advocacy groups and law firms, was meant to serve as the next step for the agency as it evaluates its options.

The delay by the SEC in addressing credit-rating firm regulations since the crisis has frustrated some critics, including Wicker and Franken.

“We need to move beyond studies to the next step,” Wicker told the audience. “Despite frequent gridlock in Washington, Democrats and Republicans agree on the need for integrity in the credit-rating industry.”

Sen. Roger Wicker
Sen. Roger Wicker

Still, Franken and Wicker’s proposal is staunchly opposed by the big three firms, all of whom sent representatives to serve as panelists.

“The proposed system could create new conflicts. The system could be costly and slow to implement, causing uncertainty in the marketplace,” said S&P President Douglas Peterson.

Critics of the Franken-Wicker plan have urged the SEC to consider a less drastic option, saying the agency should tweak its current rules on the books which so far have failed to entice firms to conduct unsolicited ratings.

New Jersey House Republican Scott Garrett said on Tuesday he believes the biggest problem with ratings during the crisis was the fact that the government essentially endorsed them by embedding them in numerous regulations and statutes.

A separate provision in Dodd-Frank had required all financial regulators to strip the references from ratings out of their rules, such as money market fund rules that prohibit investments in riskier securities.

So far, little progress has been made as regulators have struggled to come up with alternative ways of measuring credit-worthiness.

Garrett urged the SEC to quickly complete this provision of Dodd-Frank first, saying the Franken-Wicker approach is the wrong one because it will only add to investors’ over-reliance on ratings.

“If you assign [a credit-rating agency] a rating, that is a tacit endorsement,” he said.