Washington, D.C., July 8, 2008 (LAWFUEL) – The Securities and Exchange Commission today released findings from extensive 10-month examinations of three major credit rating agencies that uncovered significant weaknesses in ratings practices and the need for remedial action by the firms to provide meaningful ratings and the necessary levels of disclosure to investors.
Under new statutory authority from Congress that enabled the SEC to register and examine credit rating agencies, the agency’s staff conducted examinations of Fitch Ratings Ltd., Moody’s Investor Services Inc., and Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services to evaluate whether they are adhering to their published methodologies for determining ratings and managing conflicts of interest. With the recent subprime market turmoil, the SEC has been particularly interested in the rating agencies’ policies and practices in rating mortgage-backed securities and the impartiality of their ratings.
The SEC staff’s examinations found that rating agencies struggled significantly with the increase in the number and complexity of subprime residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) and collateralized debt obligations (CDO) deals since 2002. The examinations uncovered that none of the rating agencies examined had specific written comprehensive procedures for rating RMBS and CDOs. Furthermore, significant aspects of the rating process were not always disclosed or even documented by the firms, and conflicts of interest were not always managed appropriately.
“We’ve uncovered serious shortcomings at these firms, including a lack of disclosure to investors and the public, a lack of policies and procedures to manage the rating process, and insufficient attention to conflicts of interest,” said SEC Chairman Christopher Cox. “When the firms didn’t have enough staff to do the job right, they often cut corners. That’s the bad news. There’s also good news. And that’s that the problems are being fixed in real time. The recent events affecting our economy and our markets have galvanized regulators around the world to re-examine the regulatory framework governing credit rating agencies, but ultimately the responsibility for providing meaningful ratings to investors begins with the credit rating firms themselves.”
Lori Richards, Director of the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations, said, “These examinations found shortcomings in the ratings processes used by each of the firms examined. The firms have all agreed to implement broad reforms to address the letter and the spirit of the findings, to better ensure that investors can have confidence in their ratings.”
The Summary Report of Issues Identified in the Commission Staff’s Examinations of Select Credit Rating Agencies describes the significant weaknesses in the rating agencies’ processes in rating subprime RMBS and CDOs linked to subprime residential mortgage-backed securities from January 2004 to the present.
Specifically, the examinations found:
There was a substantial increase in the number and in the complexity of RMBS and CDO deals since 2002, and some of the rating agencies appear to have struggled with the growth.
Significant aspects of the ratings process were not always disclosed.
Policies and procedures for rating RMBS and CDOs can be better documented.
The rating agencies are implementing new practices with respect to the information provided to them.
The rating agencies did not always document significant steps in the ratings process – including the rationale for deviations from their models and for rating committee actions and decisions – and they did not always document significant participants in the ratings process.
The surveillance processes used by the rating agencies appear to have been less robust than the processes used for initial ratings.
Issues were identified in the management of conflicts of interest and improvements can be made.
The rating agencies’ internal audit processes varied significantly.
The examinations were conducted by staff in the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations, Division of Trading and Markets, and Office of Economic Analysis. The report summarizes generally the remedial actions that credit rating agencies are expected to take as a result of the examinations, and includes observations by the SEC’s Office of Economic Analysis about conflicts of interest that are unique to these products. A factual summary of the models and methodologies used by the rating agencies is provided in the report to provide transparency to the ratings process and the activities of the rating agencies in connection with the recent subprime mortgage turmoil.
The SEC last month proposed a three-fold set of comprehensive reforms to regulate the conflicts of interests, disclosures, internal policies, and business practices of credit rating agencies. The first portion of rulemaking would address conflicts of interest in the credit ratings industry and require new disclosures designed to increase the transparency and accountability of credit ratings agencies. The second portion would require credit rating agencies to differentiate the ratings they issue on structured products from those they issue on bonds through the use of different symbols or by issuing a report disclosing the differences. The third part of the SEC’s proposed rulemaking would clarify for investors the limits and purposes of credit ratings and ensure that the role assigned to ratings in SEC rules is consistent with the objectives of having investors make an independent judgment of credit risks.