The issuer-paid model for ratings is widely seen as one of the most significant aspects of the process that needs to be reformed. Yet, no good solution to reform this process has emerged. Part of the reason for that are three widely held misconceptions.
Issuers select which NRSROs will rate their deal, and they pay the rating agencies rating their deals. Many blame this dynamic for causing a conflict for the agencies, and enabling ratings-shopping by issuers. This is perhaps seen as the biggest problem in the current ratings system. Dodd-Frank and other rules in the US and Europe are trying to reform the process. Some proposals suggest removing references to rating agencies from rules, while others suggest regulating them more heavily. The former leaves a hole; the latter increases the perception that the ratings have official approval. No good solutions have emerged.
A previous article in this blog and in Structured Credit Investor (The Unrecognised and Unaddressed Ratings Issue, Malay Bansal, 7 July 2010) made the point that the ratings reform is proving to be intractable because the real issue is not being recognized or addressed in any of the reform proposals. The real problem is that the rating agencies are combining two roles into one. The first role is to provide a rating based on statistical analysis of historical performance of the assets (remember that the ‘SR’ in NRSROs stands for Statistical Ratings). The second role is that of a research analyst to provide an opinion on what might happen in the future. Currently, rating agencies combine the two. The ratings are a mix of statistical analysis and somewhat subjective opinion on the future. This allows rating agencies to downgrade companies or countries even while they are in the process of attempting to improve their financial condition. The official NRSRO status gives their subjective opinions extraordinary power and can actually have an impact on the outcome, making the ratings more pro-cyclical.
The logical solution is to separate the two roles. NRSROs should be doing Statistical Ratings – based on past performance of assets, known facts, events that have already taken place, and statistical models and methods that are well disclosed. They can put bonds on watch for upgrade or downgrade if a financial event is in progress or expected, but cannot downgrade or upgrade till the event actually happens. So they will not be precipitating events.
The second role of providing credit ratings in the form of opinion on future performance should be separated from the NRSRO role, and should be open to any research provider, including NRSROs. These credit ratings could be designated as ‘Informational Ratings’, without any legal or official role impacting investor charters, debt covenants, and so on, which will only use the ratings designated as NRSRO Ratings. This will take the non-NRSRO rating agencies back to sort of where rating agencies started – as market researchers, selling assessments of corporate debt to people considering whether to buy that debt.
The conflict of issuer-paid ratings could be avoided if issuers paid the fee for NRSRO ratings, which will be freely available to everyone, but investors paid the fee for research and informational rating available to subscribers only. Availability of the second will serve as the important function of checks and balances on the NRSRO ratings paid for by the issuers. However, neither issuers, nor the rating agencies seem to find that suggestion appealing. This is partly because of three widely held misconceptions about issuer-paid ratings.
Misconception 1: Issuers Pay for Ratings
Investors, naturally, don’t like the idea of having to pay for ratings, especially since they get it for free in the current system. However, the reality is that they are really the ones paying for it even now. The bankers for the issuer select, engage, and pay the rating agencies, but the payment comes from the money paid by investors for purchasing the bonds. By letting the bankers pick the agencies, investors tilt the balance of power to the issuer. Since they are paying for it anyway, investors should be open to paying for ratings more directly. This will reduce their concerns about the conflict of interest.
Some have criticized the high fees charged by the raters. However, there is another factor investors need to consider in this regard. If they want good quality output from the agencies, they need to be paid sufficiently to be able to attract and retain talented people. Lowering the fee is not the solution. Any scheme which involves investors selecting and paying for research from the agencies that provide better information and analysis will increase competition and provide the right incentives.
Another point in this regard is that only investors who purchase the bonds at initial issuance pay for ratings at present. Cost for investors will be lower if it was spread over all the investors. Subscription fees could be partly based on AUM, making it easier for smaller investors to subscribe.
Misconception 2: Investor-Paid Rating System will be Bad for Rating Agencies
Many, though not all, on the rating agency side, do not like the idea of having to rely on investors for their earnings. It is much better to get all the fees upfront, which sometimes includes the fee for surveillance of the deal throughout its life. However, the preference for upfront payment misses some important considerations.
First, there are a lot more investors than issuers. Even smaller payments from investors could provide the same or more revenue. Also, a smaller charge will cause more investors to sign on for the service.
Second, if the revenue is coming from investors, it is not dependent on the volume of deals, and will not fluctuate dramatically based on volume of issuance. This will provide more stability to those organizations, and allow them to focus on the quality of their work.
Third, more stable revenue would mean a higher multiple for the valuation of their businesses, which will be a positive for their owners and investors.
Fourth, if payment for rating is at the time of issuance, the agencies have to be picked to rate it. This does not align the interests of rating agencies with those of investors, creates a credibility problem, and leaves them open to criticism. By reducing the incentive to be picked to rate the deals at issuance, agencies will be better off, as will be the overall financial system, including the issuers.
Misconception 3: Ratings have to be either Issuer-Paid or Investor-Paid
Almost everyone seems to think that ratings have to be either paid by issuers or investors. However, it does not have to be one or the other. Just a sufficient portion of fee has to come from investors to provide the right incentives. Especially in structured finance transactions, where it is expensive to perform the right amount of due diligence to rate the deal, some amount of upfront payment may be necessary. However, if payment from investors is a significant portion of total revenue of rating agencies, investors and the financial system will benefit from the proper alignment of incentives that would create.
Clearly, splitting the rating agency role into two is a significant change. However, if done thoughtfully, it can be a significant improvement to the current system, and work for the benefit of everyone.
Notes: Views expressed are personal views only, and not of any affiliated organization or group. This article was originally published in Structured Credit Investor.