TheCorporateCounsel.net, April 23, 2008:
At yesterday's hearing of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs entitled "Turmoil in U.S. Credit Markets: The Role of the Credit Rating Agencies," Chairman Cox defended the SEC's implementation of the Credit Rating Agency Reform Act of 2006 and spelled out some possible new rulemaking efforts on the credit rating front.
In his testimony, Chairman Cox outlined the SEC Staff's efforts in conducting ongoing examinations of the nationally recognized statistical rating organizations (NRSROs). Those efforts have included the review of thousands of pages of internal records and emails, public disclosures and rating histories by around 40 Staff members. While the examinations are not yet complete (a report is expected by early summer), Cox noted that the Staff has found so far that there was a substantial surge in ratings for structured finance deals from 2004 – 2006, with those deals involving increasingly complex products. The examination Staff's preliminary observations have been that the "ratings process used to rate these products may have been less quantitatively developed, particularly as the products became more complicated and involved different types of loans, than was generally believed." While the SEC is trying to avoid engaging in substantive regulation of the ratings process, it is interested in the adequacy of the NRSRO's disclosure about their procedures and methodologies, and whether such factors as a desire to maintain or increase market share may have caused the NRSROs to be "less conservative" than their disclosed methodologies.
Now that the SEC's NRSRO registration system is in place and other rules implementing the 2006 legislation are effective, the SEC is looking at other areas of rulemaking within its authority. Chairman Cox outlined the following possibilities:
1. Enhanced disclosure about ratings performance – this would include disclosures that allow market participants to better compare the ratings of one NRSRO with another.
2. Accountability for managing conflicts of interest – new rules might prohibit certain practices, as well as establish requirements that address potential conflicts that could impair the process for rating structured products (e.g., consulting services provided by NRSROs to issuers).
3. Annual reporting – new rules could required the NRSROs to furnish the SEC with annual reports describing internal reviews and how well the firms adhere to ratings procedures, manage conflicts of interest and comply with securities laws.
4. Enhanced disclosure of underlying assets – new rules may require disclosure of information about the assets underlying MBS, CDOs and other structured products so market participants could better analyze creditworthiness without the benefit of ratings (and to enhance the availability of data - and thus level the playing field - for subscriber-based NRSROs as compared to the "issuer pays" NRSROs).
5. Enhanced disclosure about ratings – new rules could also mandate enhanced disclosures about how the NRSROs determine their ratings for structured products, as well as ratings information that will make it possible for investors to distinguish between ratings for different types of securities.
6. Access to information – potential rules may seek to eliminate advantages (including access to information) that NRSROs following the "issuer pays" model may have over subscriber-based NRSROs.
7. SEC reliance on ratings – The SEC is revisiting its own reliance on ratings throughout its rules. This could be a big shift in the SEC's rules, including those related to corporation finance.
These new rules could substantially change the ratings landscape, and most likely for the better. It certainly can’t get much worse.
For a great breakdown of the history behind securities ratings and what went wrong with the ratings on mortgage backed securities, check out Roger Lowenstein's piece entitled "Triple-A Failure" which will be published in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine.