Credit rating agency
A Credit rating agency (CRA) is a company that assigns credit ratings for issuers of certain types of debt 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, state and local governments, non-profit organizations, or national governments issuing debt-like securities (i.e., bonds) that can be traded on a secondary market. A credit rating for an issuer takes into consideration the issuer's credit worthiness (i.e., its ability to pay back a loan), and affects the interest rate 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 scores for individual credit-worthiness is generally called a credit bureau (US) or consumer credit reporting agency (UK).
Uses of ratings
Credit ratings are used by investors, issuers, investment banks, broker-dealers, and governments. For investors, credit rating agencies increase the range of investment alternatives and provide independent, easy-to-use measurements of relative credit 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 note that many institutional investors now prefer that a debt issuance have at least three ratings.
Issuers also use credit ratings in certain structured finance 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" 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'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 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. This creates a potential conflict of interest, 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 agreement of the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, 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 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 bonds or short-term commercial paper 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 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 funds (mutual funds that mimic the safety and liquidity of a bank savings deposit, but without Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation 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). Rather, there is a vetting process of varying sorts. The Basel II 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 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 violation of freedom of speech. 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, 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. 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 "tranches"). 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. 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 (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, Moody's Investors Service and Fitch 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.
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 fact that credit rating agencies had been aware of the company's problems for months. 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 when calculating the risk in their portfolio.
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" 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, 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 continued to give Hannover Re a rating, 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 and a receiver 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"). These rating triggers were instrumental in the collapse of Enron. 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, 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, 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, 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. AAA. CDOs were typically structured such that AAA tranches which were to receive first lien (claim) on the BBB rated loans cash flows, and losses would trickle up from the lowest quality tranches first. Cash flow was well insulated even against heavy levels of home owner defaults. Credit rating agencies only accounted for a ~5% decline in national housing prices at worst, allowing for a confidence in rating the many of these CDOs that had poor underlying loan qualities as AAA. It did not help that an incestuous relationship between financial institutions and the credit agencies developed such that, banks began to leverage the credit ratings off one another and 'shop' around amongst the three big credit agencies until they found the best ratings for their CDOs. Often they would add and remove loans of various quality until they met the minimum standards for a desired rating, usually, AAA rating. Often the fees on such ratings were $300,000 - $500,000, but ran up to $1 million.
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 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 in summer, 2011, Bank of America Merrill Lynch economist 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," according to a news report.
As part of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act 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 (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.
]Oligopoly produced by regulation
According to professor Frank Partnoy, 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
Agencies that assign credit ratings for corporations include:
A. M. Best (U.S.)
Baycorp Advantage (Australia)
Credo line (Ukraine)
Dagong Global (People's Republic of China)
Dominion Bond Rating Service (Canada)
Egan-Jones Rating Company (U.S.)
Fitch Ratings (Dual-headquartered U.S./UK)
Japan Credit Rating Agency, Ltd. (Japan)
Moody's Investors Service (U.S.)
Muros Ratings (Russia alternative rating agency)
Standard & Poor's (U.S.)
There are no notable European CRAs, except for Fitch, 80% of which is owned by FIMALAC, a French firm.
The Big Three
Big Three (credit rating agencies)
The Big Three credit rating agencies are Standard & Poor's, Moody's Investor Service, and Fitch Ratings. 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.