The "Big Three" global credit rating agencies—U.S.-based Standard and Poor's (S&P), Moody's, and Fitch Ratings—have been under intense scrutiny since the 2007–2009 global financial crisis. They were initially criticized for their favorable pre-crisis ratings of insolvent financial institutions like Lehman Brothers, as well as risky mortgage-related securities that contributed to the collapse of the U.S. housing market. But since 2010, the agencies have focused on U.S. and European sovereign debt. That resulted in S&P's unprecedented downgrade of the United States' long-held triple-A rating in early August 2011, initially prompting a global sell-off and market volatility not seen since December 2008.
Since the spring of 2010, one or more of the Big Three relegated Greece, Portugal, and Ireland to "junk" status—a move that many EU officials say has accelerated a burgeoning eurozone sovereign debt crisis. In January 2012, amid continued eurozone instability, S&P downgraded nine eurozone countries, stripping France and Austria of their triple-A ratings.
Both the United States and Europe have taken steps to regulate the three main rating agencies and ensure more transparency and competitiveness. In July 2010, the United States enacted the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which created an Office of Credit Ratings at the Securities and Exchange Commission to hold rating agencies accountable and protect investors and businesses. In early 2011, the EU established an independent authority known as the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA), tasked with regulating the activities of rating agencies relative to EU standards.
The Role of Credit Rating Agencies
Credit rating agencies are meant to provide global investors with an informed analysis of the risk associated with debt securities. These securities include government bonds, corporate bonds, certificates of deposit (CDs), municipal bonds, preferred stock, and collateralized securities, such as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and mortgage-backed securities. The riskiness of investing in these securities is determined by the likelihood that the debt issuer—be it a corporation, bank-created entity, sovereign nation, or local government—will fail to make timely interest payments on the debt.
"The more government has power and is meddling with rating agencies, the more the rating agencies will be brow-beaten into giving a generous rating to the sovereign." – Sebastian Mallaby, Council on Foreign Relations
Raters' opinions are usually characterized by a letter grade, the highest and safest being AAA, with lower grades moving to double and then single letters (AA or A) and down the alphabet from there. The ratings handed out by each of the Big Three have widespread implications for investors and global markets. "The three major rating agencies hold a collective market share of roughly 95 percent. Their special status has been cemented by law—at first only in the United States, but then in Europe as well," explains an analysis by Deutsche Welle.
Industry Structure: 'Issuer Pays' vs. 'Subscriber Pays'
Most criticism of credit raters centers on the "issuer pays" model—the system employed by S&P, Moody's, and Fitch—whereby a bond's issuer pays the rating agencies for the initial rating and ongoing ratings of a security. The public (and investors) then have access to these ratings free of charge. Many rating agencies shifted to this model in the 1970s, after years of following a "subscriber pays" model, which required large institutions investing in bonds and other securities to pay for their ratings instead. This shift may have occurred in part because raters found issuers more willing to pay for these services than investors, since the issuers needed certain ratings in order to sell their bonds to regulated financial institutions, suggests an 2010 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report [PDF].
Subscriber-pays raters have used the recent controversy surrounding the issuer-pays firms to tout the virtues of their alternative model. Egan-Jones Ratings Company, a subscriber-pays firm based in Haverford, PA, for instance, has criticized the Big Three in numerous congressional hearings for allegedly being monopolistic and enabling biased ratings. A 2008 report by the American Enterprise Institute [PDF] comparing different types of raters showed that Egan-Jones provided more accurate ratings than Moody's and S&P.
Role in the Financial Crisis
In 2008, during the global financial crisis, rating agencies were chastised in congressional hearings and lawsuits for miscalculating the risks associated with mortgage-related securities. They were accused of creating complex models to calculate the probability of default for individual mortgages and also for the securitized products these mortgages made up. Raters deemed many of these so-called "structured" products top-tier triple-A material for several years during the housing boom, only to downgrade them to below investment-grade status when the housing market collapsed. In 2007, as housing prices began to tumble, Moody's downgraded 83 percent of the $869 billion in mortgage securities it had rated at the AAA level in 2006.
Critics said the raters failed to judge the likelihood of the decline in housing prices and their effect on loan defaults. These inflated ratings also failed to account for the greater systemic risks associated with downgrading structured products, as opposed to simpler securities like corporate and sovereign bonds. Rating agencies also came under fire for allegedly sacrificing quality ratings to win a bigger share of the booming structured products business. By 2006, Moody's had earned more revenue from structured finance—$881 million—than all its business revenues combined for 2001.
The Big Three argued that rating decisions were made by rating committees, not individual analysts, and that analysts were not compensated based on their ratings. As for the criticisms of the issuer-pays system, the agencies maintained that subscriber-pays raters suffered from their own conflicts of interest. Investors might pressure rating agencies for lower ratings because the securities, if deemed riskier, would pay higher yields. Short-sellers might also benefit financially from negative ratings. The real issue then, the Big Three argued, was not whether the system was issuer-pays or subscriber-pays, but how transparent raters were with the models they used.
In February 2013, the U.S. government filed a civil suit against S&P in a California court, seeking damages of $5 billion for the agency's alleged role in misleading investors during the run-up to the financial crisis. If S&P is found guilty and forced to pay such a penalty, it could spell the end for the embattled ratings agency and its parent company, McGraw-Hill. The suit opens the door to further civil action against the major rating agencies by investors who bought presumably safe triple-A financial products before the crisis.
Impact on the Eurozone Crisis
Conversely, the EU has long accused the Big Three of issuing overly aggressive ratings in the eurozone financial crisis. Many EU officials continue to blame the rating agencies for accelerating the European sovereign debt crisis as it spread through Greece, Ireland, and Portugal—all of which have received EU-IMF bailouts to avoid defaulting on their debt obligations. The ball was set into motion with S&P's April 2010 decision to downgrade Greece's debt to junk status. The move weakened investor confidence and deepened the country's debt woes, making a financial rescue package in May 2010 all but inevitable.
European countries again came under the grip of the Big Three through the spring and early summer of 2011. Efforts by EU leaders to negotiate a second bailout for Greece—one that would see private creditors pick up some of the slack—have been complicated by S&P's July 2011 announcement that it would likely classify as a default any planned or voluntary restructuring of Greek debt. S&P lowered Greece's rating to "selective default" in February 2012 prior to the widely anticipated swap of Greek debt in May, which was considered the largest sovereign default in history. The restructuring was smooth enough for S&P to raise Greece's sovereign credit rating to B- by December that year.
In 2012, borrowing costs continued to rise for core sovereigns, and there were renewed fears over EU bank liquidity. These issues were aggravated on January 13 when S&P downgraded nine eurozone states, leaving Germany as the only country in the seventeen-nation euro bloc with a triple-A rating.
European officials have publicly accused the Big Three of showing preferential treatment to the United States, which until August 2011 maintained a triple-A rating, despite carrying an unsustainable deficit and increasingly high levels of public debt. The EU has also criticized excessive speculation by the U.S. agencies over European debt, even as concrete budgetary policies are being implemented by eurozone periphery states. Many European officials have called for the creation of an independent, European rating agency to counter the influence of the Big Three, but efforts to obtain funding for a new firm haven't been successful.
On August 5, 2011, S&P downgraded U.S. debt for the first time in U.S. history, by one notch from AAA to AA+. The move came after weeks of wrangling between Republican and Democratic lawmakers over how to cut the deficit to allow for a rise in the nation's $14.3 trillion debt ceiling. Congressional leaders and the White House reached a deal to avert a default in the nick of time, but, in the opinion of S&P, did not implement significant measures to reduce the U.S. deficit over the next ten years.
The Obama administration lambasted the rating agency's decision, with then Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner saying S&P showed "terrible judgment" and President Obama seeking to diminish the importance of S&P's verdict in an August 8 address to the nation. S&P defended its decision, even after admitting that it made a $2 trillion error in projecting deficits until 2021, a mistake that Treasury officials said should invalidate the rating. Moody's and Fitch didn't match S&P's downgrade.
In October 2013, amid a partial government shutdown and an impasse over the debt ceiling, Fitch placed the U.S. AAA rating on negative watch, citing "political brinksmanship" that increased the risks of a U.S. default. China's Dagong Global Credit Rating cut its sovereign rating of the United States by one notch on October 17, 2013, after Washington reached a deal to fund the government, noting that the agreement helped the United States "avoid the default crisis for the moment" but did not address the rising national debt. Dagong's ratings are barely watched outside of China, according to Reuters, and its analysis runs in tandem with Chinese officials. China is the world's largest holder of U.S. Treasuries.
Regulating the Rating Agencies
Critics of the Big Three in the United States and Europe have long voiced concern that legislation and financial regulations have created institutional frameworks that rely too heavily on the raters, leaving investors few alternatives. In 1975, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission began choosing which raters could be used to determine the minimum capital levels required for financial firms to trade certain debt securities, depending on their riskiness. The three raters initially chosen—Moody's, S&P, and Fitch—were deemed "nationally recognized statistical rating organizations," or NRSROs. Though the SEC added more rating agencies to the list over the years, Moody's, S&P, and Fitch maintained their dominant positions.
In addition to creating an Office of Credit Ratings at the SEC, the Dodd-Frank Act invested the SEC with the authority to examine NRSROs on an annual basis, levy fines when necessary, and even deregister an agency for providing inaccurate ratings. The EU's oversight mechanism, the ESMA, plays a similar role. But CFR Senior Fellow Sebastian Mallaby, for one, argued that government regulation is unlikely to solve the conflicts inherent in credit rating agencies, particularly when it comes to sovereign debt. "The more government has power and is meddling with rating agencies, the more the rating agencies will be brow-beaten into giving a generous rating to the sovereign," Mallaby said. The best way to counter the monopolistic power of the Big Three, he argued, is to stop putting so much weight in their ratings.
"The reason why the subprime bubble could happen, or the reason why the European sovereign debt crisis can happen is, largely, that very blind investors bought bonds relying on ratings, and [didn't do] their own homework about what the real credit risk was in the bonds," said Mallaby.
Andrew Godinich contributed to this report.
This Congressional Research Service report explains credit rating agencies and their regulations.
Bloomberg reported in 2013 that bond issuers have returned to practice of "exploiting credit ratings by seeking firms that will provide high grades on debt."
New York University professor Richard Sylla explains the business of credit ratings.