Credit Rating Agencies and Conflicts of Interest

Personally, I place a big chunk of blame on the Credit Rating Agencies for the Great Panic of 2008. They were throwing AAA ratings at piles of garbage. There is an inherent conflict in the rater being paid by the security issuer instead of the security purchaser. They are beholden to the customer and the customer wants a great rating for its security.

Exchange Act Rule 17g-5(c)(1) prohibits a Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Agency from issuing or maintaining a credit rating solicited by a person that, in the most recently ended fiscal year, provided the NRSRO with net revenue equaling or exceeding 10 percent of the total net revenue of the NRSRO for the fiscal year.

“The Commission’s rules were designed to further the goals of the Rating Agency Act to “improve ratings quality for the protection of investors and in the public interest by fostering accountability, transparency, and competition in the credit rating agency industry.” To meet these goals, it is critical that firms provide accurate information to the Commission and the public in their Form NRSROs and financial reports, that they do not have prohibited conflicts, and that they establish, maintain, and enforce policies and procedures to address conflicts of interest.”

LACE Financial submitted an application to register as an NRSRO on October 31, 2007. LACE also requested an exemption from the 10 percent rule, which the SEC granted. LACE requested the exemption because LACE’s largest client (“Firm A”) provided LACE with more than ten percent of LACE’s total revenue during fiscal year 2007. Firm A managed Collateralized Debt Obligation (“CDO”) and hired LACE to prepare regular reports that Firm A distributed to investors in these CDOs.

According to the SEC Release, in an attempt to keep the 2007 revenue from Firm A as close as possible to ten percent of its total revenues for the year, LACE postponed billing Firm A for reports completed during December 2007 until January 2008. In its exemption request letter, LACE stated that its estimated annual revenues from Firm A for 2007 would be $119,000 when calculated on a cash basis and $179,000 when calculated on an accrual basis. “The total value of work performed for Firm A by LACE during 2007 was in fact $233,268.28, approximately 28 percent of LACE’s revenues for the year when properly calculated on an accrual basis as required by GAAP.”

LACE got slapped with a civil money penalty in the amount of $20,000 and an injunction not to break the law again. They also charged Damyon Mouzon, the president of LACE, blaming him for trying to shift revenue and deliberately hide the conflict of interest.

It seems clear to me that the rating agencies were not trying to protect investors. They were trying to generate revenue. That means keeping their clients, the securities issuers happy.

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