Justice Department Investigation of S&P
The Justice Department is investigating Standard & Poor’s for improperly rating the garbage mortgage-backed securities that tanked the economy once the world caught on that they were toxic assets.
The anonymous folks who leaked this info to the press claim that the inquiry began prior to S&P’s downgrade of U.S. debt, but many have speculated that the fervor and depth of the probe has ratcheted up since the nation lost its AAA-status.
Either way, the law dogs are — finally — poking around in the ratings world.
The Justice Department has been asking about instances in which the company’s analysts wanted to award lower ratings on mortgage bonds but may have been overruled by other S.& P. business managers, according to the people with knowledge of the interviews. If the government finds enough evidence to support such a case, which is likely to be a civil case, it could undercut S.& P.’s longstanding claim that its analysts act independently from business concerns.
It is unclear if the Justice Department investigation involves the other two ratings agencies, Moody’s and Fitch, or only S.& P.
Any inquiry should of course involve looking at all three. Each overrated the used diaper mortgage-backed securities to a baffling degree. Whether or not it was incompetence or something more insidious is really the only question, I have. I presume they are capable of both.
But if this investigation focuses solely on S&P then it falls even more into how one talking head on MSNBC’s The Daily Rundown described it: more of a Washington story than a Wall Street one.
Honestly, the only weird thing about hearing today about an investigation going on right now is that it was something I expected to hear in 2008.
In related news, and not just to toot our own horn, but I would feel remiss not to mention that our Risk Management magazine cover story this month was titled “The Future of Ratings” and examines “how rating agencies gained so much power, helped tank the economy and figure into the future of risk assessment.”
I’m not going to pretend that I knew just how much play rating agencies would be getting in August when I commissioned the piece a few months ago. I’m many things, but clairvoyant is not one of them. But the piece speaks to many of the questionable issues surrounding the ratings world that have been curiously dormant in the mainstream media for years until recently.
A wonderful writer, Lori Widmer, did a fine job so please do give it a read.