One of the funnier items in the news this past week was the assertion by lawyers for Standard & Poor’s that the Department of Justice, which is suing the agency for fraud, is just trying to punish it for its downgrade of U.S. credit in 2011.
S&P was one of the agencies that gave high ratings to complicated and very unsound investment instruments, especially collateralized debt obligations, in advance of the financial crisis. Since the agencies’ fees were paid by the same banks issuing the securities they were charged with evaluating, the agencies had no reason to be neutral in their assessments. They knew just how dangerous the securities were, but they were paid to look the other way.
Matt Taibbi looks over the evidence:
In incriminating e-mail after incriminating e-mail, executives and analysts from these companies are caught admitting their entire business model is crooked.
“Lord help our fucking scam…â€‰this has to be the stupidest place I have worked at,” writes one Standard & Poor’s executive. “As you know, I had difficulties explaining ‘HOW’ we got to those numbers since there is no science behind it,” confesses a high-ranking S&P analyst. “If we are just going to make it up in order to rate deals, then quants [quantitative analysts] are of precious little value,” complains another senior S&P man. “Let’s hope we are all wealthy and retired by the time this house of card[s] falters,” ruminates one more.
Had the agencies been doing their job correctly, poor ratings would have forced bankers to stay away from the toxic assets. “The firm provided cover,” Michael Hiltzick writes. “No securities trader would be fired for taking the plunge on a mortgage-backed security, no matter how dubious, if it bore the seal of approval of S&P.” Senior bank executives would have had a better idea of how much risk these supposedly safe investments really entailed, and they would have been able to prepare for, or even avert, the collapse.
After the national embarrassment that was the negotiation over the federal debt ceiling in 2011, S&P revoked its perfect “AAA” credit rating for United States. Now, the agency claims that the government’s lawsuit is “retaliation for defendants’ exercise of their free speech rights with respect to the creditworthiness of the United States of America.”
A few points. First, this defense contradicts another argument S&P made earlier this year: that everyone should have ignored S&P’s ratings because (and I kid you not) no reasonable investor would ever rely on them, and therefore S&P should not be blamed for the catastrophe. If that is true, and the ratings are completely and utterly meaningless, then S&P’s decision to downgrade Treasuries simply cannot be interpreted as a statement about the creditworthiness of the United States.
S&P’s earlier position, absurd though it is, actually has a basis in reality. The agency studiously ignored the dangers accumulating in the financial system, and then, when it revoked the government’s AAA rating, the entire world studiously ignored S&P. Investors, having learned that whatever S&P says about your creditworthiness is basically horsesh**, made their own decision about the likelihood of a U.S. default and continued buying Treasury bonds. Interest rates actually fell, as Hiltzik notes. “Maybe S&P is still trying to prove its point that no one ought to take it seriously,” Paul Barrett writes.
Finally, S&P’s sanctimonious posturing after the debate over debt ceiling and its measured statement of profound concern regarding the stability of the national economy in the long term appear particularly hypocritical given its share of the responsibility for the financial crisis. Indeed, had S&P done its part to maintain the stability of the global financial system, the federal government’s finances would be much stronger now.
Maybe someone at S&P had the entire charade planned from the very beginning. “First we’ll blow up Wall Street,” I can imagine him saying. “Then, to protect ourselves from fraud litigation, we’ll make sure we’re the first to question the federal government’s creditworthiness after Congress responds to the crisis with a massive fiscal stimulus. It will look like retaliation if they try to sue us then.” Fortunately for the rest of us, this strategy probably won’t quite work all the way.