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Credit rating agency

Credit rating agency

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A Credit rating agency is a company that assigns credit rating
Credit rating
A credit rating evaluates the credit worthiness of an issuer of specific types of debt, specifically, debt issued by a business enterprise such as a corporation or a government. It is an evaluation made by a credit rating agency of the debt issuers likelihood of default. Credit ratings are...

s for issuer
Issuer
Issuer is a legal entity that develops, registers and sells securities for the purpose of financing its operations.Issuers may be domestic or foreign governments, corporations or investment trusts...

s of certain types of debt
Debt
A debt is an obligation owed by one party to a second party, the creditor; usually this refers to assets granted by the creditor to the debtor, but the term can also be used metaphorically to cover moral obligations and other interactions not based on economic value.A debt is created when a...

 obligations as well as the debt instruments themselves. In some cases, the servicers of the underlying debt are also given ratings.

In most cases, the issuers of securities are companies, special purpose entities
Special purpose entity
A special purpose entity is a legal entity created to fulfill narrow, specific or temporary objectives...

, state and local governments, non-profit organization
Non-profit organization
Nonprofit organization is neither a legal nor technical definition but generally refers to an organization that uses surplus revenues to achieve its goals, rather than distributing them as profit or dividends...

s, or national governments issuing debt-like securities (i.e., bonds
Bond (finance)
In finance, a bond is a debt security, in which the authorized issuer owes the holders a debt and, depending on the terms of the bond, is obliged to pay interest to use and/or to repay the principal at a later date, termed maturity...

) that can be traded on a secondary market
Secondary market
The page applies to the finanical term; For the merchandising concept, see Aftermarket .The secondary market, also called aftermarket, is the financial market where previously issued securities and financial instruments such as stock, bonds, options, and futures are bought and sold....

. A credit rating for an issuer takes into consideration the issuer's credit worthiness (i.e., its ability to pay back a loan
Loan
A loan is a type of debt. Like all debt instruments, a loan entails the redistribution of financial assets over time, between the lender and the borrower....

), and affects the interest rate
Interest rate
An interest rate is the rate at which interest is paid by a borrower for the use of money that they borrow from a lender. For example, a small company borrows capital from a bank to buy new assets for their business, and in return the lender receives interest at a predetermined interest rate for...

 applied to the particular security being issued.

The value of such security ratings has been widely questioned after the 2007-09 financial crisis. In 2003 the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission submitted a report to Congress detailing plans to launch an investigation into the anti-competitive practices of credit rating agencies and issues including conflicts of interest. More recently, ratings downgrades during the European sovereign debt crisis of 2010-11 have drawn criticism from the EU and individual countries.

A company that issues credit score
Credit score
A credit score is a numerical expression based on a statistical analysis of a person's credit files, to represent the creditworthiness of that person...

s for individual credit-worthiness is generally called a credit bureau
Credit bureau
A credit bureau , or credit reference agency is a company that collects information from various sources and provides consumer credit information on individual consumers for a variety of uses. It is an organization providing information on individuals' borrowing and bill paying habits...

 (US) or consumer credit reporting agency (UK).

Uses of ratings


Credit ratings are used by investor
Investor
An investor is a party that makes an investment into one or more categories of assets --- equity, debt securities, real estate, currency, commodity, derivatives such as put and call options, etc...

s, issuer
Issuer
Issuer is a legal entity that develops, registers and sells securities for the purpose of financing its operations.Issuers may be domestic or foreign governments, corporations or investment trusts...

s, investment banks, broker-dealer
Broker-dealer
A broker-dealer is a term used in United States financial services regulations. It is a natural person, a company or other organization that trades securities for its own account or on behalf of its customers....

s, and governments. For investors, credit rating agencies increase the range of investment alternatives and provide independent, easy-to-use measurements of relative credit risk
Credit risk
Credit risk is an investor's risk of loss arising from a borrower who does not make payments as promised. Such an event is called a default. Other terms for credit risk are default risk and counterparty risk....

; this generally increases the efficiency of the market, lowering costs for both borrowers and lenders. This in turn increases the total supply of risk capital in the economy, leading to stronger growth. It also opens the capital markets to categories of borrower who might otherwise be shut out altogether: small governments, startup companies, hospitals, and universities.

Ratings use by bond issuers


Issuers rely on credit ratings as an independent verification of their own credit-worthiness and the resultant value of the instruments they issue. In most cases, a significant bond issuance must have at least one rating from a respected CRA for the issuance to be successful (without such a rating, the issuance may be undersubscribed or the price offered by investors too low for the issuer's purposes). Studies by the Bond Market Association
Bond Market Association
The Bond Market Association was the international trade association for the bond market industry. It had headquarters in London, New York City, and Washington D.C. Twenty per cent of the membership was located outside of the US, while 70 per cent was located outside New York City...

 note that many institutional investor
Institutional investor
Institutional investors are organizations which pool large sums of money and invest those sums in securities, real property and other investment assets...

s now prefer that a debt issuance have at least three ratings.

Issuers also use credit ratings in certain structured finance
Structured finance
Structured finance is a broad term used to describe a sector of finance that was created to help transfer risk and avoid lawsStructured finance is a broad term used to describe a sector of finance that was created to help transfer risk and avoid laws...

 transactions. For example, a company with a very high credit rating wishing to undertake a particularly risky research project could create a legally separate entity with certain assets that would own and conduct the research work. This "special purpose entity
Special purpose entity
A special purpose entity is a legal entity created to fulfill narrow, specific or temporary objectives...

" would then assume all of the research risk and issue its own debt securities to finance the research. The SPE's credit rating likely would be very low, and the issuer would have to pay a high rate of return on the bonds issued.

However, this risk would not lower the parent company
Parent company
A parent company is a company that owns enough voting stock in another firm to control management and operations by influencing or electing its board of directors; the second company being deemed as a subsidiary of the parent company...

's overall credit rating because the SPE would be a legally separate entity. Conversely, a company with a low credit rating might be able to borrow on better terms if it were to form an SPE and transfer significant assets to that subsidiary
Subsidiary
A subsidiary company, subsidiary, or daughter company is a company that is completely or partly owned and wholly controlled by another company that owns more than half of the subsidiary's stock. The subsidiary can be a company, corporation, or limited liability company. In some cases it is a...

 and issue secured debt securities. That way, if the venture were to fail, the lenders would have recourse to the assets owned by the SPE. This would lower the interest rate the SPE would need to pay as part of the debt offering.

The same issuer also may have different credit ratings for different bonds. This difference results from the bond's structure, how it is secured, and the degree to which the bond is subordinated to other debt. Many larger CRAs offer "credit rating advisory services" that essentially advise an issuer on how to structure its bond offerings and SPEs so as to achieve a given credit rating for a certain debt tranche
Tranche
In structured finance, a tranche is one of a number of related securities offered as part of the same transaction. The word tranche is French for slice, section, series, or portion, and is cognate to English trench . In the financial sense of the word, each bond is a different slice of the deal's...

. This creates a potential conflict of interest
Conflict of interest
A conflict of interest occurs when an individual or organization is involved in multiple interests, one of which could possibly corrupt the motivation for an act in the other....

, of course, as the CRA may feel obligated to provide the issuer with that given rating if the issuer followed its advice on structuring the offering. Some CRAs avoid this conflict by refusing to rate debt offerings for which its advisory services were sought.

Ratings use by government regulators


Regulators use credit ratings as well, or permit ratings to be used for regulatory purposes. For example, under the Basel II
Basel II
Basel II is the second of the Basel Accords, which are recommendations on banking laws and regulations issued by the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision...

 agreement of the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision
Basel Committee on Banking Supervision
The Basel Committee on Banking Supervision is a committee of banking supervisory authorities that was established by the central bank governors of the Group of Ten countries in 1975. It provides a forum for regular cooperation on banking supervisory matters. Its objective is to enhance...

, banking regulators can allow banks to use credit ratings from certain approved CRAs (called "ECAIs", or "External Credit Assessment Institutions") when calculating their net capital reserve requirements. In the United States, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) permits investment banks and broker-dealers to use credit ratings from "Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations" (NRSRO) for similar purposes. The idea is that banks and other financial institutions should not need keep in reserve the same amount of capital
Financial capital
Financial capital can refer to money used by entrepreneurs and businesses to buy what they need to make their products or provide their services or to that sector of the economy based on its operation, i.e. retail, corporate, investment banking, etc....

 to protect the institution against (for example) a run on the bank, if the financial institution is heavily invested in highly liquid and very "safe" securities (such as U.S. government bond
Government bond
A government bond is a bond issued by a national government denominated in the country's own currency. Bonds are debt investments whereby an investor loans a certain amount of money, for a certain amount of time, with a certain interest rate, to a company or country...

s or short-term commercial paper
Commercial paper
In the global money market, commercial paper is an unsecured promissory note with a fixed maturity of 1 to 270 days. Commercial Paper is a money-market security issued by large banks and corporations to get money to meet short term debt obligations , and is only backed by an issuing bank or...

 from very stable companies).

CRA ratings are also used for other regulatory purposes as well. The US SEC, for example, permits certain bond issuers to use a shortened prospectus
Prospectus (finance)
In finance, a prospectus is a document that describes a financial security for potential buyers. A prospectus commonly provides investors with material information about mutual funds, stocks, bonds and other investments, such as a description of the company's business, financial statements,...

 form when issuing bonds if the issuer is older, has issued bonds before, and has a credit rating above a certain level. SEC regulations also require that money market
Money market
The money market is a component of the financial markets for assets involved in short-term borrowing and lending with original maturities of one year or shorter time frames. Trading in the money markets involves Treasury bills, commercial paper, bankers' acceptances, certificates of deposit,...

 funds (mutual fund
Mutual fund
A mutual fund is a professionally managed type of collective investment scheme that pools money from many investors to buy stocks, bonds, short-term money market instruments, and/or other securities.- Overview :...

s that mimic the safety and liquidity of a bank savings deposit, but without Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation
Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation is a United States government corporation created by the Glass–Steagall Act of 1933. It provides deposit insurance, which guarantees the safety of deposits in member banks, currently up to $250,000 per depositor per bank. , the FDIC insures deposits at...

 insurance) comprise only securities with a very high NRSRO rating. Likewise, insurance regulators use credit ratings to ascertain the strength of the reserves held by insurance companies.

In 2008, the US SEC voted unanimously to propose amendments to its rules that would remove credit ratings as one of the conditions for companies seeking to use short-form registration when registering securities for public sale.

This marks the first in a series of upcoming SEC proposals in accordance with Dodd-Frank to remove references to credit ratings contained within existing Commission rules and replace them with alternative criteria.

Under both Basel II and SEC regulations, not just any CRA's ratings can be used for regulatory purposes. (If this were the case, it would present a moral hazard
Moral hazard
In economic theory, moral hazard refers to a situation in which a party makes a decision about how much risk to take, while another party bears the costs if things go badly, and the party insulated from risk behaves differently from how it would if it were fully exposed to the risk.Moral hazard...

). Rather, there is a vetting process of varying sorts. The Basel II
Basel II
Basel II is the second of the Basel Accords, which are recommendations on banking laws and regulations issued by the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision...

 guidelines (paragraph 91, et al.), for example, describe certain criteria that bank regulators should look to when permitting the ratings from a particular CRA to be used. These include "objectivity," "independence," "transparency," and others. Banking regulators from a number of jurisdictions have since issued their own discussion papers on this subject, to further define how these terms will be used in practice. (See The Committee of European Banking Supervisors Discussion Paper, or the State Bank of Pakistan ECAI Criteria).

In the United States, since 1975, NRSRO recognition has been granted through a "No Action Letter" sent by the SEC staff. Following this approach, if a CRA (or investment bank or broker-dealer) were interested in using the ratings from a particular CRA for regulatory purposes, the SEC staff would research the market to determine whether ratings from that particular CRA are widely used and considered "reliable and credible." If the SEC staff determines that this is the case, it sends a letter to the CRA indicating that if a regulated entity were to rely on the CRA's ratings, the SEC staff will not recommend enforcement action against that entity. These "No Action" letters are made public and can be relied upon by other regulated entities, not just the entity making the original request. The SEC has since sought to further define the criteria it uses when making this assessment, and in March 2005 published a proposed regulation to this effect.

On September 29, 2006, US President George W. Bush
George W. Bush
George Walker Bush is an American politician who served as the 43rd President of the United States, from 2001 to 2009. Before that, he was the 46th Governor of Texas, having served from 1995 to 2000....

 signed into law the "Credit Rating Reform Act of 2006". This law requires the US Securities and Exchange Commission to clarify how NRSRO recognition is granted, eliminates the "No Action Letter" approach and makes NRSRO recognition a Commission (rather than SEC staff) decision, and requires NRSROs to register with, and be regulated by, the SEC. S & P protested the Act on the grounds that it is an unconstitutional
Constitutionality
Constitutionality is the condition of acting in accordance with an applicable constitution. Acts that are not in accordance with the rules laid down in the constitution are deemed to be ultra vires.-See also:*ultra vires*Company law*Constitutional law...

 violation of freedom of speech
First Amendment to the United States Constitution
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution is part of the Bill of Rights. The amendment prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering...

. In the Summer of 2007 the SEC issued regulations implementing the act, requiring rating agencies to have policies to prevent misuse of nonpublic information, disclosure of conflicts of interest and prohibitions against "unfair practices".

Recognizing CRAs' role in capital formation
Capital formation
Capital formation is a concept used in macroeconomics, national accounts and financial economics. Occasionally it is also used in corporate accounts. It can be defined in three ways:...

, some governments have attempted to jump-start their domestic rating-agency businesses with various kinds of regulatory relief or encouragement. This may, however, be counterproductive, if it dulls the market mechanism by which agencies compete, subsidizing less-capable agencies and penalizing agencies that devote resources to higher-quality opinions.

Ratings use in structured finance


Credit rating agencies may also play a key role in structured financial transactions
Structured finance
Structured finance is a broad term used to describe a sector of finance that was created to help transfer risk and avoid lawsStructured finance is a broad term used to describe a sector of finance that was created to help transfer risk and avoid laws...

. Unlike a "typical" loan or bond issuance, where a borrower offers to pay a certain return on a loan, structured financial transactions may be viewed as either a series of loans with different characteristics, or else a number of small loans of a similar type packaged together into a series of "buckets" (with the "buckets" or different loans called "tranche
Tranche
In structured finance, a tranche is one of a number of related securities offered as part of the same transaction. The word tranche is French for slice, section, series, or portion, and is cognate to English trench . In the financial sense of the word, each bond is a different slice of the deal's...

s"). Credit ratings often determine the interest rate or price ascribed to a particular tranche, based on the quality of loans or quality of assets contained within that grouping.

Companies involved in structured financing arrangements often consult with credit rating agencies to help them determine how to structure the individual tranches so that each receives a desired credit rating. For example, a firm may wish to borrow a large sum of money by issuing debt securities
Bond (finance)
In finance, a bond is a debt security, in which the authorized issuer owes the holders a debt and, depending on the terms of the bond, is obliged to pay interest to use and/or to repay the principal at a later date, termed maturity...

. However, the amount is so large that the return investors may demand on a single issuance would be prohibitive. Instead, it decides to issue three separate bonds, with three separate credit ratings—A (medium low risk), BBB (medium risk), and BB (speculative) (using Standard & Poor's rating system).

The firm expects that the effective interest rate it pays on the A-rated bonds will be much less than the rate it must pay on the BB-rated bonds, but that, overall, the amount it must pay for the total capital it raises will be less than it would pay if the entire amount were raised from a single bond offering. As this transaction is devised, the firm may consult with a credit rating agency to see how it must structure each tranche—in other words, what types of assets must be used to secure the debt in each tranche—in order for that tranche to receive the desired rating when it is issued.

There has been criticism in the wake of large losses in the collateralized debt obligation
Collateralized debt obligation
Collateralized debt obligations are a type of structured asset-backed security with multiple "tranches" that are issued by special purpose entities and collateralized by debt obligations including bonds and loans. Each tranche offers a varying degree of risk and return so as to meet investor demand...

 (CDO) market that occurred despite being assigned top ratings by the CRAs. For instance, losses on $340.7 million worth of CDOs issued by Credit Suisse Group added up to about $125 million, despite being rated AAA or Aaa by Standard & Poor's
Standard & Poor's
Standard & Poor's is a United States-based financial services company. It is a division of The McGraw-Hill Companies that publishes financial research and analysis on stocks and bonds. It is well known for its stock-market indices, the US-based S&P 500, the Australian S&P/ASX 200, the Canadian...

, Moody's
Moody's
Moody's Corporation is the holding company for Moody's Analytics and Moody's Investors Service, a credit rating agency which performs international financial research and analysis on commercial and government entities. The company also ranks the credit-worthiness of borrowers using a standardized...

 Investors Service and Fitch
Fitch Ratings
The Fitch Group is a majority-owned subsidiary of FIMALAC, headquartered in Paris. Fitch Ratings, Fitch Solutions and Algorithmics, are part of the Fitch Group....

 Group.

The rating agencies respond that their advice constitutes only a "point in time" analysis, that they make clear that they never promise or guarantee a certain rating to a tranche, and that they also make clear that any change in circumstance regarding the risk factors of a particular tranche will invalidate their analysis and result in a different credit rating. In addition, some CRAs do not rate bond issuances upon which they have offered such advice.

Complicating matters, particularly where structured finance transactions are concerned, the rating agencies state that their ratings are opinions (and as such, are protected free speech, granted to them by the "personhood" of corporations) regarding the likelihood that a given debt security will fail to be serviced over a given period of time, and not an opinion on the volatility of that security and certainly not the wisdom of investing in that security. In the past, most highly rated (AAA or Aaa) debt securities were characterized by low volatility and high liquidity—in other words, the price of a highly rated bond did not fluctuate greatly day-to-day, and sellers of such securities could easily find buyers.

However, structured transactions that involve the bundling of hundreds or thousands of similar (and similarly rated) securities tend to concentrate similar risk in such a way that even a slight change on a chance of default can have an enormous effect on the price of the bundled security. This means that even though a rating agency could be correct in its opinion that the chance of default of a structured product is very low, even a slight change in the market's perception of the risk of that product can have a disproportionate effect on the product's market price, with the result that an ostensibly AAA or Aaa-rated security can collapse in price even without there being any default (or significant chance of default). This possibility raises significant regulatory issues because the use of ratings in securities and banking regulation (as noted above) assumes that high ratings correspond with low volatility and high liquidity.

Criticism


Credit rating agencies have been subject to the following criticisms:
  • Credit rating agencies do not downgrade companies promptly enough. For example, Enron's rating remained at investment grade four days before the company went bankrupt, despite the fact that credit rating agencies had been aware of the company's problems for months. Or, for example, Moody's gave Freddie Mac preferred stock the top rating until Warren Buffett
    Warren Buffett
    Warren Edward Buffett is an American business magnate, investor, and philanthropist. He is widely regarded as one of the most successful investors in the world. Often introduced as "legendary investor, Warren Buffett", he is the primary shareholder, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway. He is...

     talked about Freddie on CNBC
    CNBC
    CNBC is a satellite and cable television business news channel in the U.S., owned and operated by NBCUniversal. The network and its international spinoffs cover business headlines and provide live coverage of financial markets. The combined reach of CNBC and its siblings is 390 million viewers...

     and on the next day Moody's downgraded Freddie to one tick above junk bonds
    High-yield debt
    In finance, a high-yield bond is a bond that is rated below investment grade...

    . Some empirical studies have documented that yield spreads of corporate bonds start to expand as credit quality deteriorates but before a rating downgrade, implying that the market often leads a downgrade and questioning the informational value of credit ratings. This has led to suggestions that, rather than rely on CRA ratings in financial regulation, financial regulators should instead require banks, broker-dealers and insurance firms (among others) to use credit spreads
    Credit spread (bond)
    The financial term, credit spread is the yield spread, or difference in yield between different securities, due to different credit quality. The credit spread reflects the additional net yield an investor can earn from a security with more credit risk relative to one with less credit risk...

     when calculating the risk in their portfolio
    Portfolio (finance)
    Portfolio is a financial term denoting a collection of investments held by an investment company, hedge fund, financial institution or individual.-Definition:The term portfolio refers to any collection of financial assets such as stocks, bonds and cash...

    .

  • Large corporate rating agencies have been criticized for having too familiar a relationship with company management, possibly opening themselves to undue influence or the vulnerability of being misled. These agencies meet frequently in person with the management of many companies, and advise on actions the company should take to maintain a certain rating. Furthermore, because information about ratings changes from the larger CRAs can spread so quickly (by word of mouth, email, etc.), the larger CRAs charge debt issuers, rather than investors, for their ratings. This has led to accusations that these CRAs are plagued by conflicts of interest that might inhibit them from providing accurate and honest ratings. At the same time, more generally, the largest agencies (Moody's and Standard & Poor's) are often seen as promoting a narrow-minded focus on credit ratings, possibly at the expense of employees, the environment, or long-term research and development. These accusations are not entirely consistent: on one hand, the larger CRAs are accused of being too cozy with the companies they rate, and on the other hand they are accused of being too focused on a company's "bottom line
    Bottom Line
    The Bottom Line was a music venue at 15 West Fourth Street between Mercer Street and Greene Street in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City...

    " and unwilling to listen to a company's explanations for its actions..

  • While often accused of being too close to company management of their existing clients, CRAs have also been accused of engaging in heavy-handed "blackmail" tactics in order to solicit business from new clients, and lowering ratings for those firms . For instance, Moody's published an "unsolicited" rating of Hannover Re
    Hannover Re
    Hannover Re , with a gross premium of around €11 billion, is one of the leading reinsurance groups in the world...

    , with a subsequent letter to the insurance firm indicating that "it looked forward to the day Hannover would be willing to pay". When Hannover management refused, Moody's continued to give Hannover Re ratings, which were downgraded over successive years, all while making payment requests that the insurer rebuffed. In 2004, Moody's cut Hannover's debt to junk status, and even though the insurer's other rating agencies gave it strong marks, shareholders were shocked by the downgrade and Hannover lost $175 million USD in market capitalization.

  • The lowering of a credit score by a CRA can create a vicious cycle, as not only interest rates for that company would go up, but other contracts with financial institutions may be affected adversely, causing an increase in expenses and ensuing decrease in credit worthiness. In some cases, large loans to companies contain a clause that makes the loan due in full if the companies' credit rating is lowered beyond a certain point (usually a "speculative" or "junk bond" rating). The purpose of these "ratings triggers" is to ensure that the bank is able to lay claim to a weak company's assets before the company declares bankruptcy
    Bankruptcy
    Bankruptcy is a legal status of an insolvent person or an organisation, that is, one that cannot repay the debts owed to creditors. In most jurisdictions bankruptcy is imposed by a court order, often initiated by the debtor....

     and a receiver
    Receivership
    In law, receivership is the situation in which an institution or enterprise is being held by a receiver, a person "placed in the custodial responsibility for the property of others, including tangible and intangible assets and rights." The receivership remedy is an equitable remedy that emerged in...

     is appointed to divide up the claims against the company. The effect of such ratings triggers, however, can be devastating: under a worst-case scenario, once the company's debt is downgraded by a CRA, the company's loans become due in full; since the troubled company likely is incapable of paying all of these loans in full at once, it is forced into bankruptcy (a so-called "death spiral
    Death spiral financing
    Death spiral financing is a process where convertible financing used to fund primarily small cap companies can be used against it in the marketplace to cause the company’s stock to fall dramatically and can lead to the company’s ultimate downfall....

    "). These rating triggers were instrumental in the collapse of Enron
    Enron
    Enron Corporation was an American energy, commodities, and services company based in Houston, Texas. Before its bankruptcy on December 2, 2001, Enron employed approximately 22,000 staff and was one of the world's leading electricity, natural gas, communications, and pulp and paper companies, with...

    . Since that time, major agencies have put extra effort into detecting these triggers and discouraging their use, and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission requires that public companies in the United States disclose their existence.

  • Agencies are sometimes accused of being oligopolists
    Oligopoly
    An oligopoly is a market form in which a market or industry is dominated by a small number of sellers . The word is derived, by analogy with "monopoly", from the Greek ὀλίγοι "few" + πόλειν "to sell". Because there are few sellers, each oligopolist is likely to be aware of the actions of the others...

    , because barriers to market entry are high and rating agency business is itself reputation-based (and the finance industry pays little attention to a rating that is not widely recognized). Of the large agencies, only Moody's is a separate, publicly held corporation that discloses its financial results without dilution by non-ratings businesses, and its high profit margins (which at times have been greater than 50 percent of gross margin) can be construed as consistent with the type of returns one might expect in an industry which has high barriers to entry.

  • Credit Rating Agencies have made errors of judgment in rating structured products, particularly in assigning AAA ratings to structured debt, which in a large number of cases has subsequently been downgraded or defaulted. The actual method by which Moody's rates CDOs has also come under scrutiny. If default models are biased to include arbitrary default data and "Ratings Factors are biased low compared to the true level of expected defaults, the Moody’s [method] will not generate an appropriate level of average defaults in its default distribution process. As a result, the perceived default probability of rated tranches from a high yield CDO will be incorrectly biased downward, providing a false sense of confidence to rating agencies and investors." Little has been done by rating agencies to address these shortcomings indicating a lack of incentive for quality ratings of credit in the modern CRA industry. This has led to problems for several banks whose capital requirements depend on the rating of the structured assets they hold, as well as large losses in the banking industry. AAA rated mortgage securities trading at only 80 cents on the dollar, implying a greater than 20% chance of default, and 8.9% of AAA rated structured CDOs are being considered for downgrade by Fitch, which expects most to downgrade to an average of BBB to BB-. These levels of reassessment are surprising for AAA rated bonds, which have the same rating class as US government bonds. Most rating agencies do not draw a distinction between AAA on structured finance and AAA on corporate or government bonds (though their ratings releases typically describe the type of security being rated). Many banks, such as AIG
    AIG
    AIG is American International Group, a major American insurance corporation.AIG may also refer to:* And-inverter graph, a concept in computer theory* Answers in Genesis, a creationist organization in the U.S.* Arta Industrial Group in Iran...

    , made the mistake of not holding enough capital in reserve in the event of downgrades to their CDO portfolio. The structure of the Basel II agreements meant that CDOs capital requirement rose 'exponentially'. This made CDO portfolios vulnerable to multiple downgrades, essentially precipitating a large margin call. For example under Basel II
    Basel II
    Basel II is the second of the Basel Accords, which are recommendations on banking laws and regulations issued by the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision...

    , a AAA rated securitization requires capital allocation of only 0.6%, a BBB requires 4.8%, a BB requires 34%, whilst a BB(-) securitization requires a 52% allocation. For a number of reasons (frequently having to do with inadequate staff expertise and the costs that risk management programs entail), many institutional investors relied solely on the ratings agencies rather than conducting their own analysis of the risks these instruments posed. (As an example of the complexity involved in analyzing some CDOs, the Aquarius CDO structure has 51 issues behind the cash CDO component of the structure and another 129 issues that serve as reference entities for $1.4 billion in CDS contracts for a total of 180. In a sample of just 40 of these, they had on average 6500 loans at origination. Projecting that number to all 180 issues implies that the Aquarius CDO has exposure to about 1.2 million loans.) Pimco founder William Gross urged investors to ignore rating agency judgments, describing the agencies as "an idiot savant with a full command of the mathematics, but no idea of how to apply them."

  • Ratings agencies, in particular Fitch, Moody's and Standard and Poors have been implicitly allowed by governments to fill a quasi-regulatory role, but because they are for-profit entities their incentives may be misaligned. Conflicts of interest often arise because the rating agencies, are paid by the companies issuing the securities — an arrangement that has come under fire as a disincentive for the agencies to be vigilant on behalf of investors. Many market participants no longer rely on the credit agencies ratings systems, even before the economic crisis of 2007-8, preferring instead to use credit spreads to benchmarks like Treasuries or an index. However, since the Federal Reserve requires that structured financial entities be rated by at least two of the three credit agencies, they have a continued obligation.

  • Many of the structured financial products that they were responsible for rating, consisted of lower quality 'BBB' rated loans, but were, when pooled together into CDOs, assigned an AAA rating. The strength of the CDO was not wholly dependent on the strength of the underlying loans, but in fact the structure assigned to the CDO in question. CDOs are usually paid out in a 'waterfall' style fashion, where income received gets paid out first to the highest tranches, with the remaining income flowing down to the lower quality tranches i.e.

  • It has also been suggested that the credit agencies are conflicted in assigning sovereign credit ratings since they have a political incentive to show they do not need stricter regulation by being overly critical in their assessment of governments they regulate.

  • Rating agencies have come under criticism for a narrow-minded view of government default from investors' perspective. A government that does not run a sustainable budget might be forced to print money to meet credit payments, this will then inflate the economy and devalue the currency. USA is for example thought to be unlikely to default on their payments since they have the printing power of the dollar, which a country like Greece does not have for its currency, the Euro. However the Euro, which was introduced in year 1999 on an even exchange rate with the dollar, was trading almost 50% higher than the dollar only 10 years after its launch. At that time, because of investor fear for a default in the peripheral states of EU, Greece's government bond credit rating was in the junk bond category, while the USA credit rating was still in the top category. The criticism escalated in summer, 2011, when the European Commission
    European Commission
    The European Commission is the executive body of the European Union. The body is responsible for proposing legislation, implementing decisions, upholding the Union's treaties and the general day-to-day running of the Union....

     and EC President and former Portuguese premier José Manuel Barroso, respectively, criticized Moody's downgrade of Portuguese bonds.

  • After Moody's reported a surge in "toxic" municipal debt (money owed to banks by municipalities) in China
    Chinese financial system
    China's financial system is highly regulated and has recently begun to expand rapidly as monetary policy becomes integral to its overall economic policy...

     in summer, 2011, Bank of America Merrill Lynch
    Bank of America Merrill Lynch
    Bank of America Merrill Lynch is the corporate and investment banking division of Bank of America. It provides services in mergers and acquisitions, equity and debt capital markets, lending, trading, risk management, research, and liquidity and payments management...

     economist
    Economist
    An economist is a professional in the social science discipline of economics. The individual may also study, develop, and apply theories and concepts from economics and write about economic policy...

     Ting Lu deemed the assessment “too pessimistic," saying he disagreed with the assumptions and the math and the translation-of-terms used by the rating agency. Moody's had also estimated that "between 8% to 12% of loans extended by Chinese banks could eventually be classed as non-performing
    Non-performing loan
    A Non-performing loan is a loan that is in default or close to being in default. Many loans become non-performing after being in default for 3 months, but this can depend on the contract terms....

    ," according to a news report.


As part of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act
Sarbanes-Oxley Act
The Sarbanes–Oxley Act of 2002 , also known as the 'Public Company Accounting Reform and Investor Protection Act' and 'Corporate and Auditing Accountability and Responsibility Act' and commonly called Sarbanes–Oxley, Sarbox or SOX, is a United States federal law enacted on July 30, 2002, which...

 of 2002, Congress ordered the U.S. SEC to develop a report, titled "Report on the Role and Function of Credit Rating Agencies in the Operation of the Securities Markets" detailing how credit ratings are used in U.S. regulation and the policy issues this use raises. Partly as a result of this report, in June 2003, the SEC published a "concept release" called "Rating Agencies and the Use of Credit Ratings under the Federal Securities Laws" that sought public comment on many of the issues raised in its report. Public comments on this concept release have also been published on the SEC's website.

In December 2004, the International Organization of Securities Commissions
International Organization of Securities Commissions
The International Organization of Securities Commissions is an association of organisations that regulate the world’s securities and futures markets....

 (IOSCO) published a Code of Conduct for CRAs that, among other things, is designed to address the types of conflicts of interest that CRAs face. All of the major CRAs have agreed to sign on to this Code of Conduct and it has been praised by regulators ranging from the European Commission to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
  • Attempts to regulate more strictly credit rating agencies in the wake of the European sovereign debt crisis have been rather unsuccessful. Some European financial law and regulation experts have argued that the hastily drafted, unevenly transposed in national law, and poorly enforced EU rule on rating agencies (Règlement CE n° 1060/2009) has had little effect on the way financial analysts and economists interpret data or on the potential for conflicts of interests created by the complex contractual arrangements between credit rating agencies and their clients"

Oligopoly produced by regulation


According to professor Frank Partnoy
Frank Partnoy
Frank Partnoy is the George E. Barrett Professor of Law and Finance at the University of San Diego School of Law.-Bibliography:* F.I.A.S.C.O.: Blood in the Water on Wall Street* Infectious Greed: How Deceit and Risk Corrupted the Financial Markets...

, the regulation of CRAs by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the FED has eliminated competition between CRAs and practically forced market participants to use the services of the three big agencies, Standard and Poor's, Moody's and Fitch.

SEC Commissioner Kathleen Casey has said that these CRAs have acted much like Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and other companies that dominate the market because of government actions. When the CRAs gave ratings that were "catastrophically misleading, the large rating agencies enjoyed their most profitable years ever during the past decade."

To solve this problem, Ms. Casey proposed to remove the NRSRO rules completely. Also professor Lawrence White (NYU) has made the same proposition. Professor Frank Partnoy suggests that the regulators should trust in credit risk swap markets instead of NRSROs.

The CRAs have made competing suggestions that would, instead, add further regulations that would make market entrance even more expensive than it is now.

List of credit rating agencies


For more information, see Bond credit rating
Bond credit rating
In investment, the bond credit rating assesses the credit worthiness of a corporation's or government debt issues. It is analogous to credit ratings for individuals.-Table:...

.

Agencies that assign credit ratings for corporations include:
  • A. M. Best (U.S.)
  • Baycorp Advantage
    Baycorp Advantage
    Veda Advantage is the largest credit reference agency in Australia and New Zealand. It provides credit reporting, credit scoring, and marketing analytics services....

     (Australia
    Australia
    Australia , officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a country in the Southern Hemisphere comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania, and numerous smaller islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is the world's sixth-largest country by total area...

    )
  • Capital Intelligence (Cyprus
    Cyprus
    Cyprus , officially the Republic of Cyprus , is a Eurasian island country, member of the European Union, in the Eastern Mediterranean, east of Greece, south of Turkey, west of Syria and north of Egypt. It is the third largest island in the Mediterranean Sea.The earliest known human activity on the...

    )
  • Capital Standards Rating (Kuwait
    Kuwait
    The State of Kuwait is a sovereign Arab state situated in the north-east of the Arabian Peninsula in Western Asia. It is bordered by Saudi Arabia to the south at Khafji, and Iraq to the north at Basra. It lies on the north-western shore of the Persian Gulf. The name Kuwait is derived from the...

    )
  • Credo line
    Credo line
    -History:Information and Rating Agency Credo Line was established with support of foreign export credit agencies and Ukrainian partners in June 2008 with the view to achieving maximum transparency on the information market of CIS countries and qualitative improvement of rendered services...

     (Ukraine
    Ukraine
    Ukraine is a country in Eastern Europe. It has an area of 603,628 km², making it the second largest contiguous country on the European continent, after Russia...

    )
  • Dagong Global
    Dagong
    Dagong Global Credit Rating is a credit rating agency based in China. It is one of the few notable non-US based credit rating agencies....

     (People's Republic of China
    People's Republic of China
    China , officially the People's Republic of China , is the most populous country in the world, with over 1.3 billion citizens. Located in East Asia, the country covers approximately 9.6 million square kilometres...

    )
  • Dominion Bond Rating Service
    Dominion Bond Rating Service
    DBRS is a credit rating agency headquartered in Toronto, Ontario. Founded in 1976 by its current owner and president, Walter Schroeder, it is the largest rating agency in Canada....

     (Canada
    Canada
    Canada is a North American country consisting of ten provinces and three territories. Located in the northern part of the continent, it extends from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west, and northward into the Arctic Ocean...

    )
  • Egan-Jones Rating Company
    Egan-Jones Rating Company
    Egan-Jones Rating Company, also known as EJR, was founded in 1995 and actively rates the credit worthiness of approximately 2000+ high yield and high grade U.S. corporate debt issuers. Egan-Jones is wholly supported by investors to minimize the potential for conflicts of interest in accessing...

     (U.S.)
  • Fitch Ratings
    Fitch Ratings
    The Fitch Group is a majority-owned subsidiary of FIMALAC, headquartered in Paris. Fitch Ratings, Fitch Solutions and Algorithmics, are part of the Fitch Group....

     (Dual-headquartered U.S./UK)
  • CIBIL
    CIBIL
    CIBIL is India's first credit information bureau. Its a repository of information, which contains the credit history of commercial and consumer borrowers...

     (India)
  • Japan Credit Rating Agency, Ltd.
    Japan Credit Rating Agency, Ltd.
    The Japan Credit Rating Agency is a Japanese financial services company which publishes credit ratings to Japanese companies, local governments, and other interested parties. The company is one of the Japanese credit rating agencies which the Japanese financial service agency has approved as...

     (Japan
    Japan
    Japan is an island nation in East Asia. Located in the Pacific Ocean, it lies to the east of the Sea of Japan, China, North Korea, South Korea and Russia, stretching from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north to the East China Sea and Taiwan in the south...

    )
  • Moody's Investors Service (U.S.)
  • Muros Ratings (Russia
    Russia
    Russia or , officially known as both Russia and the Russian Federation , is a country in northern Eurasia. It is a federal semi-presidential republic, comprising 83 federal subjects...

     alternative rating agency)
  • Rapid Ratings International (U.S.)
  • Standard & Poor's
    Standard & Poor's
    Standard & Poor's is a United States-based financial services company. It is a division of The McGraw-Hill Companies that publishes financial research and analysis on stocks and bonds. It is well known for its stock-market indices, the US-based S&P 500, the Australian S&P/ASX 200, the Canadian...

     (U.S.)
  • Weiss Ratings (U.S.)

There are no notable European CRAs, except for Fitch, 80% of which is owned by FIMALAC
FIMALAC
FIMALAC is a French credit rating and risk management corporation.-Biography:FIMALAC was created by Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière in 1991. He serves as the CEO, and holds 100% of the shares of the Fimalac Group, that holds ~80% of Fimalac. It is headquartered in Paris...

, a French firm.

The Big Three



The Big Three credit rating agencies are Standard & Poor's
Standard & Poor's
Standard & Poor's is a United States-based financial services company. It is a division of The McGraw-Hill Companies that publishes financial research and analysis on stocks and bonds. It is well known for its stock-market indices, the US-based S&P 500, the Australian S&P/ASX 200, the Canadian...

, Moody's
Moody's
Moody's Corporation is the holding company for Moody's Analytics and Moody's Investors Service, a credit rating agency which performs international financial research and analysis on commercial and government entities. The company also ranks the credit-worthiness of borrowers using a standardized...

 Investor Service, and Fitch Ratings
Fitch Ratings
The Fitch Group is a majority-owned subsidiary of FIMALAC, headquartered in Paris. Fitch Ratings, Fitch Solutions and Algorithmics, are part of the Fitch Group....

. Moody's and S&P each control about 40 percent of the market. Third-ranked Fitch Ratings, which has about a 14 percent market share, sometimes is used as an alternative to one of the other majors.

CRA business models


Most credit rating agencies follow one of two business models. Originally, all CRAs relied on a "subscriber-based" business model where the CRA would not distribute the ratings for free but would instead only provide the ratings to subscribers to the CRA's publications. Subscription fees would provide the bulk of the CRA's income. Today, most smaller CRAs still rely on this business model, which proponents believe allows the CRA to publish ratings that are less likely to be tinged by certain types of conflicts of interest. By contrast, most large and medium-sized CRAs (including Moody's, S&P, Fitch, Japan Credit Ratings, R&I, A.M. Best and others) today rely on an "issuer-pays" business model in which most of the CRA's revenue comes from fees paid by the issuers themselves. Under this business model, while subscribers to the CRA's services are still provided with more detailed reports analyzing an issuer, these services are a minor source of income and most ratings are provided to the public for free. Proponents of this model argue that if the CRA relied only on subscriptions for income, the vast majority of bonds would go unrated since subscriber interest is low for all but the largest issuances. These proponents also argue that while they face a clear conflict of interest vis-a-vis the issuers they rate (as described above), the subscriber-based model also presents conflicts of interest, since a single subscriber may provide a large portion of a CRA's revenue and the CRA may feel obligated to publish ratings that support that subscriber's investment decisions.

Further reading


External links