By Malay Bansal

A Simple and easy to implement idea for reforming the issuer-paid model for credit ratings that accomplishes the goal of the Franken Amendment.

Note: A version of this article was also published on Seeking Alpha.

Five years since the credit crisis, debates on how to reform the ratings process continue with no good solution or consensus in sight, even though there is general agreement about the conflict of interest inherent in the issuer-paid model which allows ratings-shopping by issuers, and the need for reform, especially for Structured Finance securities. The Franken Amendment to the Dodd-Frank Act  specifies a solution to be used if the SEC cannot find a better alternative, which proposes creating a board, overseen by the SEC, which will assign rating agencies to provide initial ratings for structured debt securities.  Even though the goal of eliminating the conflicts arising from issuers selecting the agencies is desirable, the proposal has not garnered support from many industry participants as a practical solution. This article suggests an alternative reform which is simpler and easier to implement, and achieves the same basic goal.

The basic problem, especially in structured finance (and especially in securitization of mortgage and other debt), is that the issuers or their underwriters select the agencies that will rate a structured debt issuance. They obtain preliminary ratings from all agencies, and then the agencies providing the highest ratings are selected to rate that transaction. Since agencies get paid only if they are selected to rate the deal, they have an incentive to provide the highest rating possible, which creates the conflict of interest.

The Franken amendment solution seems to address this conflict. However, it addresses the wrong part of the problem. The real problem is not that the issuers want to get the best ratings possible. It is rational behavior for any issuer to want to know what the economics of a deal will look like before proceeding, and want to get the best economic result from a debt issuance. Having a board to assign rating agencies could result in issuers not knowing till too late which agencies might rate their deal and what the economics of the issuance might look like. This will introduce unnecessary uncertainty for the issuers. The same outcome could also be achieved by simply prohibiting issuers from obtaining preliminary ratings. This will avoid having to create the bureaucracy of a new board, but will have the same undesirable consequence of uncertainty for the issuers.

The real problem is that the rating agencies depend on issuers to select them to rate specific transaction for all of their revenues. Usually two agencies are selected to rate the transaction. They get paid, others do not. Keeping too high a standard means not being selected and not having any revenue. The higher ratings they can give, the more transactions they will rate and the more money they will make. That is the perverse incentive and the conflict of interest in the current system, that needs to be resolved. The problem is in the system which leads to undesirable outcome with people trying to be economically rational in behavior. In some ways, this issue may become worse this time as there are many more rating agencies now competing than the three dominant ones in the past, and the overall structured finance issuance volume is much smaller.

As one solution, SEC tried to promote unsolicited ratings from agencies that were not selected by the issuer to rate the deal. However, the due-diligence for rating asset-backed deals is expensive. Also, the rating agencies do not want to alienate issuers for fear of not being selected for future deals. So, unsolicited ratings have not been given. Another alternative idea talked about is to have the users of the rating pay for it. That approach faces criticism that all investors should have access to the same information, not just those who can pay for it. Also, investors generally do not like the idea of paying for ratings. Neither the Franken Amendment solution, nor the above two seem like a viable solution. One key problem, especially in structured finance transactions, is that it is expensive to perform the right amount of due diligence to rate a deal, and some amount of upfront payment may be necessary, which as a practical matter, will have to come from the issuers, leading us back to the existing business model.

In an earlier article (Three Misconceptions about Issuer-Paid Ratings), I argued that this problem seems intractable because of three widely held misconceptions about the issuer-paid nature of the ratings. The biggest block is perhaps the third one – the belief that the “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 the fee has to come from, or be driven by, investors to provide the right incentives.

If we do not want the status quo, the solution has to accomplish the following goals:

  • Should not add uncertainty for issuers.
  • Should not require new bureaucracy of an SEC board specifying agencies to use for each issuance.
  • Reduce dependency of rating agencies on being selected by issuers for all of their revenue.
  • Give investors control of part of revenue.
  • Allow rating agencies to provide ratings without having to worry about if they will be selected.

Here is one solution that accomplishes all of these: Require an additional rating agency for each transaction. This agency will be paid from the proceeds of the issuance, just like the other two agencies picked by the issuer to rate the deal. However, this agency will provide the ratings after the transaction has settled. This will effectively achieve the same objective as attempts to get unsolicited opinions or ratings, but an agency will be hired and paid to do it to ensure the right amount of due diligence and quality. Also, to avoid the conflict of interest issue, the additional agency will not be selected by the issuers, but by investors. This can be easily achieved by letting the investors vote for the additional agency on a website maintained by the issuer’s underwriters. Websites are already used for transactions to share transaction information with investors, and it will be easy to add a page to let them vote on the additional rating agency. It will be important to include all investors in the voting process, not just those who purchased bonds in the deal, to avoid the conflict that may arise from investors wanting the best ratings once they have purchased the bonds.

This solution does require the issuer to pay for one more rating agency. However, the cost is easily manageable and worth the benefit, and better than having an SEC board assign rating agencies. More important, it means that at least one third of the rating agency revenues will be controlled by investors, and the agencies are not completely dependent on selection by issuers. It gives them an incentive to do better work for investors, both in the initial ratings, and in the on-going monitoring of the deals.

As I have suggested earlier (Rating Agency Reform: The Real Problem That Has Not Been Recognized), over time, everyone will be better off if rating agencies can move towards a subscription based model for at least part of their revenues. If investors have control over a significant enough portion of the total revenues of the rating agencies, investors, rating agencies (including their investors), and the entire financial system will benefit from the proper alignment of incentives that would be created.

Note: The views expressed are solely and strictly my own and not of any current or past employers, colleagues, or affiliated organizations. My writings are simply expressions of my intellectual thought process. The intent is not to promote any particular view point or agenda, and the writings are not influenced by any other groups or individuals.

By Malay Bansal & John Joshi

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.

By Malay Bansal

The most important and the most basic issue related to ratings and rating agencies has not been recognized or addressed in reforms announced so far. Here’s a new idea on a practical solution to address this most fundamental issue, which also addresses the conflict of interest issue that has received the most attention so far.

The Reforms

Ratings agencies have been criticized heavily by many for their role in the U.S. financial crisis, in particular over conflicts of interest and their failure to recognize the high risks inherent in complex structured products. They have also been blamed for throwing fuel onto the fire of crises by belatedly and aggressively ratcheting down ratings. Numerous proposals have been put forward to reform the rating process to avoid these issues.

The US Congress, after resolving the differences between the House and Senate versions last week, is on the path to pass a sweeping financial regulatory reform bill aimed at increasing oversight and regulation of the US financial system. Among the issues addressed is reform of credit rating agencies. However, the compromise bill avoids most of the stronger proposals. The bill directs SEC to conduct a two-year study to determine if a board overseen by SEC should be setup to help pick which firms rate asset backed securities (the Senate version of the bill had required such a regulatory board). The bill also adopted a softer version of proposed liability provision than was in the house version of the bill (investors must show a company “knowingly or recklessly” failed to conduct a “reasonable” investigation before issuing a rating). The compromises are better than the extreme versions of proposals even though it means that the proposed regulations may not do much to change how the agencies operate.

Earlier, in mid April, SEC made some changes. In the update of Regulation AB, it eliminated the involvement of rating agencies in the shelf registration process by removing the requirement that the ABS be rated investment grade. This clearly has no impact on the rating process.

SEC also promulgated the Rule 17g-5, which went into effect on June 2, to address perceived conflicts of interest with issuer-paid ratings provided by nationally recognized statistical rating organizations (“NRSROs”). The rule aims to increase the number of ratings and promote unsolicited ratings for structured finance products. To achieve this goal, the rule requires issuers and hired rating agencies to maintain password-protected websites to share rating information with non-hired rating agencies. The concept is good, but if implementation means rating agencies will have to share all information with other agencies, they may have less incentive to dig deeper and find more data.

None of these changes are radical overhauls or even proportionate to the amount of criticism that was leveled at the agencies (Calpers has sued the three major bond rating agencies for $1 billion in losses it said were caused by “wildly inaccurate” risk assessments) or the wide ranging calls for ratings reform. In some ways, it is good that some of the more extreme proposals have not been adopted. But why is it so difficult to reform the rating process?

The Power of the Rating Agencies

One reason that makes it very difficult to make changes to the ratings process is that ratings are heavily embedded in almost every part of the financial systems around the world. They are used in investor’s charters defining what they can buy. They are used for calculation of capital charges for banks, insurance, and other financial companies. They are used in loan covenants and triggers on corporate debt. They are used to calculate haircuts on repo lines, along with many other uses.

Also, despite the recent failings, they serve a very useful purpose. Not everyone has the expertise and resources to analyze every security in detail. Presence of credit rating agencies gives smaller investors a starting point for analysis that they may not otherwise have.

This embedding of ratings in the financial system and reliance by so many participants on the ratings gives the nationally recognized statistical rating organizations or NRSROs tremendous power as ratings changes can have significant impact on companies, and even nations.

There are numerous examples of the impact that ratings changes can have. One recent one was during the onset of the 2010 European Sovereign Debt Crisis. What clearly played a role in triggering and escalating the crisis, even though it was not the cause, was the downgrade of Greece’s credit rating by three steps from investment grade BBB+ to junk rating of BB+. This came minutes after S&P downgraded Portugal by two steps to A- from A+. The announcement came at a sensitive time as the European Union policy makers and the International Monetary Fund were trying to hammer out measures to ease the panic over swelling budget deficits and create a financial rescue package for Greece. S&P followed the next day cutting Spain’s rating by one step to AA, and keeping the outlook as negative, reflecting the chance of further downgrades, with its projection of just 0.7% average real GDP growth annually from 2010 to 2016. Markets reacted violently to the cuts as investors worried about the safety of the debt of these countries, and contagion spread from Greece to other countries. Stock markets tumbled worldwide, and bond and currency markets had big moves and became very volatile.

Another way ratings impact markets is via the feedback loop between the markets and ratings through portfolios tied to indexes mandating certain holdings of particular debt. For example, the Barclays Euro Government Bond Index includes Greek debt as 4% of index, but only if the bonds maintain a certain credit quality based on lower of the rating from S&P and Moody’s. Greece had been 4% of that index but was excluded starting May 1, due to S&P’s downgrade. That in turn likely forced selling from investors tracking that index.

Critics assailed rating firms for fueling woe in Europe and Europeans criticized debt-rating agencies, accusing them of spooking the markets and worsening the plight of financially stretched governments such as Greece, struggling with heavy debt loads.

There are several other examples where a company needing to raise more debt in capital markets finds it cannot do so, or not at a reasonable cost, once it has been downgraded even while it was attempting to raise capital to improve its financial situation. The downgrade increases cost of financing as investors demand more yield reflecting lower rating. The downgrade may also result in existing investors having to sell holdings, further increasing the yields in the market. It can become a vicious circle increasing the likelihood of default. The downgrade reflects rating agency’s opinion of the outcome, but it also becomes a causal factor in determining that outcome. The rating agencies in effect become the judge, jury, and the hangman for the company.

The Real Problem That Has Not Been Recognized

In the current system, the rating agencies’ opinion can become a causal factor in making that opinion become reality. Time and again, in structured products and otherwise, it has been clear that the rating agencies are not infallible in their judgment, and do not have any special powers of predicting future. Their failures in predicting subprime mortgage performance have been appalling. But even if you look at the forecasts of defaults in corporate bonds, the predictions do not match the actual outcome, and the predictions themselves change over time, as they should.

So, if ratings are heavily embedded in the system and are needed, and yet rating agencies are not smarter than everybody else, and if they do not have special predictive powers about the future, how do we avoid giving their subjective opinions so much importance and extraordinary power?

The answer lies in recognizing the real problem – one that has not been addressed in any of the proposals so far. The real problem is that the rating agencies are combining two roles into one. First role is to provide a rating based on statistical analysis and past performance of the assets – remember that 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. At the same time, it leaves rating agencies open to criticism if they do not act and the feared worse outcome becomes reality before their downgrade. This also allows subjectivity and flexibility in ratings process that creates perceived conflicts of interest in issuer paid ratings.

 

The Solution

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, and cannot be blamed for not downgrading sooner. This role will be limited to those approved as NRSROs.

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, etc, 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 information provided to NRSROs should be made available to all NRSROs and other non-NRSRO rating agencies, in a manner similar to password-protected website required under SEC Rule 17g-5. However, to promote competition and improve quality, the other rating agencies should be free to gather more information and not have to share it with others.

The conflict of issuer paid rating could be avoided if issuers were required to pay a fixed fee based on deal type (maybe to a group set up by the SEC or an industry association for that purpose) which would be divided between all NRSRO raters informing issuers of their decision to rate the deal after the issuers post the information on the password-protected website for credit raters. This will avoid ratings-shopping by issuers even though the agencies will be indirectly paid by the issuers. The NRSRO Rating will be provided to investors without any charge. The NRSROs will only provide the current rating, along with disclosing their rating methodology to investors. They will not provide any opinions or qualitative information.

For more qualitative information and opinions, investors will look to the Informational Ratings and more details from research providers (including NRSROs and non-NRSROs). This will be paid for by the investors looking for enhanced information and research. This will be the main source of income for credit raters and will incentivize them to compete with others for investor subscriptions and produce quality results.

Separating the two roles avoids the issues of rating agencies precipitating events if they act or facing criticism if they do not. It avoids the perception of conflict from issuer-paid ratings, by allocating costs between the issuer and the investors. It also preserves the role of rating agencies where its needed, while encouraging the investors to do more work on their own and look for third party unbiased research and opinion.

Note: Versions of this article were published in Structured Credit Investor and Seeking Alpha.


 

 

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