0

Rating the Raters

CAMBRIDGE – In the new financial order being put in place by regulators around the world, reform of credit rating agencies should be a key element. Credit rating agencies, which play an important role in modern capital markets, completely failed in the years preceding the financial crisis. What is needed is an effective mechanism for rating the raters.

There is widespread recognition that rating agencies have let down investors. Many financial products related to real estate lending that Standard & Poor, Moody’s, and Fitch rated as safe in the boom years turned out to be lethally dangerous. And the problem isn’t limited to such financial products: with issuers of other debt securities choosing and compensating the firms that rate them, the agencies still have strong incentives to reciprocate with good ratings.

What should be done? One proposed approach would reduce the significance of the raters’ opinions. In many cases, the importance of ratings comes partly from legal requirements that oblige or encourage institutional investors and investment vehicles to maintain portfolios of assets that have received sufficiently high grades from the recognized agencies.

Disappointment about the raters’ performance, and skepticism about the effectiveness of regulation, has led to calls to eliminate any regulatory reliance on ratings. If ratings are not backed by the force of law, so the argument goes, regulators need not worry about rating quality and can leave the monitoring of raters to the market.