U.S. regulators think they can do better than the major credit ratings agencies. As part of the Dodd-Frank Act, U.S. regulators are no longer allowed to use ratings from independent companies to judge the appropriateness of bank capital levels. Under the newest proposal from the Fed, the Comptroller of the Currency, and the FDIC, ratings would instead be assigned based on OECD classifications, which are even worse than the ratings agencies’ diagnoses.
This week, the U.S. Congress will hold hearings regarding the major credit ratings agencies’ supposed inability to predict the collapse of MF Global. Despite the fact that both Moody and S&P downgraded the brokerage prior to the collapse and “did not have any understanding” of the firm’s bets on European sovereign debt until less than a week before the collapse, expect lawmakers to crack down harshly on ratings agencies yet again.
This comes amid accusations that ratings agencies are, apparently, being too harsh on European nations thanks to a spate of downgrades in sovereign creditworthiness over the past months. These accusations piggyback on prior claims that the ratings agencies failed to anticipate the wave of defaults in subprime mortgages that precipitated the U.S. housing crisis. (Never mind that U.S. regulators didn’t anticipate them either.)
Surely the OECD ratings can’t be worse?
Except that they can be. The OECD currently rates all of the troubled countries of the Eurozone as entirely riskless investments and has done so since they started producing ratings. This stands in stark contrast to the ratings agencies. See below for a breakdown of ratings, and notice how the OECD has totally failed to grasp the magnitude of the current crisis.
By cutting out ratings agencies, regulators have correctly sensed the conflicts of interest in the status quo, but they have merely replaced one set of conflicts of interest with another. The OECD is a collective of governments who are leveraged to the hilt with sovereign debts they are struggling to service. In this instance, the ratings agencies are right to say these countries are in trouble. It appears that in this instance, least wrong is the best we can hope for.