Earlier this month, the Justice Department and 16 state attorneys general sued the Standard and Poor’s (S&P) credit-rating agency, accusing the company of improperly inflating the ratings of 40 collateralized debt obligations (CDOs)—essentially, securities made up of other mortgage-backed securities—at the height of the housing bubble. According to the suit, S&P misled investors by rating the risky securities as “triple-A,” super-safe investments. But the purchases turned into massive investor losses when the bonds failed after the bubble collapsed. Using emails and other communications, state, and federal prosecutors will seek to prove that S&P knew the securities were junk but rated them highly for the most obvious of reasons: to make more money.
The lawsuit gets at a major problem at the heart of the credit-rating business: Rather than investors paying rating agencies to assess the value of securities it is the issuers of the securities themselves who pick up the tab. It is naturally in the interest of issuers—typically big banks—for rating agencies to rate their products highly, which increases the chances investors will buy them. Under this “issuer-pays” model, the largest credit-rating agencies then have a strong incentive to highly rate securities for issuers who can give them more business in the future. This is said to be part of the reason rating agencies ignored the risks from the highly complex securities and simply let everything pass; in one communication revealed in the filing, an S&P employee boasted, “It could be structured by cows and we would rate it.”