Friday, January 29, 2010

How to Cause a Credit Crisis

When companies issue debt they submit themselves to the Rating Organizations for an examination. However, the impact of the received rating is affected by the reality that the major Rating Organizations have a government seal of approval. The rating is viewed as though it were issued by the government itself. The prevalence of this sensibility led to an unwarranted level of confidence in the ratings. It led to a disaster.

Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organization

A Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organization (or "NRSRO") is a credit rating agency which issues credit ratings that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) permits other financial firms to use for certain regulatory purposes.

As of September 2008, ten organizations were designated as NRSROs:

Moody's Investor Service
Standard & Poor's
Fitch Ratings
A. M. Best Company
Dominion Bond Rating Service, Ltd
Japan Credit Rating Agency, Ltd
R&I, Inc.
Egan-Jones Rating Company
LACE Financial
Realpoint LLC

Ratings by NRSRO are used for a variety of regulatory purposes in the United States. In addition to net capital requirements (described in more detail below), the SEC permits certain bond issuers to use a shorter 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 mimick the safety and liquidity of a bank savings deposit, but without FDIC insurance) comprise only securities with a very high rating from an NRSRO. Likewise, insurance regulators use credit ratings from NRSROs to ascertain the strength of the reserves held by insurance companies.


The use of the term NRSRO began in 1975 when the SEC promulgated rules regarding bank and broker-dealer net capital requirements. The idea is that banks and other financial institutions should not need to 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 commercial paper from very stable companies. The safety of these securities, under this approach, is reflected in their credit ratings, as determined by certain highly respected credit rating agencies ("CRA").

In the early 1980s, there were seven NRSROs, but, due to mergers, this number dropped to three during the 1990s. Recently, the SEC, arguably as a result of political pressure and/or concern about concentration in the industry, added to this number, first with Dominion Bond Rating Service (a Canadian CRA) in 2003, and A.M. Best (highly regarded in particular for its ratings of insurance firms) in 2005.

In 2007, the SEC added two Japanese rating agencies, Japan Credit Rating Agency, Ltd. and Ratings and Investment Information, Inc. and a Philadelphia area based firm Egan-Jones Rating Company (EJR).

Originally, NRSRO recognition was granted by the SEC through a "No Action Letter" sent by the SEC staff. Under 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 determined that this was the case, it would send a letter to the CRA indicating that if a regulated entity were to rely on the CRA's ratings, the SEC staff would not recommend enforcement action against that entity.

These "No Action" letters were made public and could be relied upon by other regulated entities, not just the entity making the original request. The SEC later sought to further define the criteria it uses when making this assessment, and in March 2005 published a a proposed regulation to this effect.

Until recently, the SEC staff used several criteria when determining whether a CRA publishes ratings that the market considers reliable and credible. According to the SEC's Concept Release:

The single most important factor in the Commission staff’s assessment of NRSRO status is whether the rating agency is “nationally recognized” in the United States as an issuer of credible and reliable ratings by the predominant users of securities ratings.

The staff also reviews the operational capability and reliability of each rating organization. Included within this assessment are: (1) the organizational structure of the rating organization; (2) the rating organization’s financial resources (to determine, among other things, whether it is able to operate independently of economic pressures or control from the companies it rates); (3) the size and quality of the rating organization’s staff (to determine if the entity is capable of thoroughly and competently evaluating an issuer’s credit); (4) the rating organization’s independence from the companies it rates; (5) the rating organization’s rating procedures (to determine whether it has systematic procedures designed to produce credible and accurate ratings); and (6) whether the rating organization has internal procedures to prevent the misuse of nonpublic information and whether those procedures are followed. The staff also recommends that the agency become registered as an investment adviser.

Credit Rating Agency Reform Act of 2006

In 2006, following criticism that the SEC's "No Action letter" approach was simultaneously too opaque and provided the SEC with too little regulatory oversight of NRSROs, the U.S. Congress passed the Credit Rating Agency Reform Act. This law required the SEC to establish clear guidelines for determining which credit rating agencies qualify as NRSROs. It also gives the SEC the power to regulate NRSRO internal processes regarding record-keeping and how they guard against conflicts of interest, and makes the NRSRO determination subject to a Commission vote (rather than an SEC staff determination).

Notably, however, the law specifically prohibits the SEC from regulating an NRSRO's rating methodologies.

In June 2007, the SEC promulgated new rules (Oversight of Credit Rating Agencies Registered as Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations) which implemented the provisions of the Credit Rating Agency Reform Act.


Many private users (pension funds, banks) of ratings data now demand that ratings be from an NRSRO. Consequently, there is some debate that, by "recognizing" certain CRAs, the SEC has bestowed a competitive advantage on them. This view is supported by the vigor by which many non-NRSRO CRAs seek NRSRO recognition.

On the other hand, historically, many private users of ratings data have "defaulted" to Standard and Poor's and Moody's when specifying which ratings must be used for their own purposes. (S&P and Moody's are the oldest, most widely respected, and by far the largest of the CRAs.)

Accordingly, it is conceivable that the NRSRO designation has actually increased competition in the industry by providing an unintended government "seal of approval" on certain smaller CRAs (such as Fitch, DBRS, A.M. Best, and now, Egan-Jones). If true, this, of course, raises the question of whether this is something the government should do, and whether the NRSRO recognition process is the best mechanism to achieve this goal.

The larger NRSROs have also been criticized for their reliance on an "issuer-pays" business model, in which the bulk of their revenue comes from the issuers of the bonds being rated. While this is recognized by regulators as a potential conflict of interest (since the bond issuer paying for the rating has an incentive to seek out the CRA most likely to give it a high rating, possibly creating a "race-to-the-bottom" in terms of rating quality), the larger NRSROs claim that the issuer-pays model is the only feasible model for them.

This is because, in an age of email and faxes, the ratings of the larger CRAs are so widely and so quickly shared that a subscription-based model would not be profitable. Furthermore, the larger CRAs often receive non-public information from issuers and, under the SEC's Regulation FD, a CRA may only use such information if their ratings are made available to the public for free.

However, some smaller CRAs, including Egan-Jones, rely on a subscription-based business model where the ratings are not made public but are available only to subscribers. These firms argue that such a business model makes them less reliant on the good will of the issuers they rate, thereby eliminating one major potential conflict of interest.

Labels: , , , ,


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stop spending you door knobs! Eat Kraft dinner instead! Save your hard earned cash in your mattress like they did during the Depression. I heard that lard is a good substitute for butter!

5:59 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home