Obviously with Buffett a major shareholder of Moody’s, the only place where a downgrade of Berkshire could come from was S&P. Moments ago, the rating agency that dared to downgrade the US for which it is being targeted by Eric Holder’s Department of “Justice”, did just that. Continue reading »
McGraw-Hill Cos. (MHP) and its Standard & Poor’s unit were sued by the U.S. over claims S&P knowingly understated the credit risks of instruments that were central to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
The U.S. Justice Department filed a complaint yesterday in federal court in Los Angeles, accusing McGraw-Hill and S&P of mail fraud, wire fraud and financial institutions fraud. Under the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act of 1989, the U.S. seeks civil penalties of as much as $1.1 million for each violation. The company’s shares tumbled the most in 25 years yesterday when it said it expected the lawsuit, the first federal case against a ratings firm for grades related to the credit crisis.
Standard & Poor’s on Wednesday cut Spain’s sovereign credit rating to BBB-minus, just above junk territory, citing a deepening economic recession that is limiting the government’s policy options to arrest the slide.
The S&P downgrade comes with a negative outlook reflecting the credit ratings agency’s view that there are significant risks to economic growth and budgetary performance, plus a lack of clear direction in euro zone policies.
“In our view, the capacity of Spain’s political institutions (both domestic and multilateral) to deal with the severe challenges posed by the current economic and financial crisis is declining,” S&P said in a statement.
S&P’s two-notch downgrade from BBB-plus brings it in line with Moody’s Investors Service’s Baa3 rating. Moody’s has Spain on review for a possible downgrade.
With government bond markets increasingly manipulated directly via central-bank intervention – and becoming increasingly illiquid – the odd situation we find ourselves in once again is that CDS markets perhaps provide a ‘cleaner’ picture of where credit risk is actually being traded between market participants (hedgers or speculators). To wit, Bloomberg’s ever-insightful Michael McDonough has noticed a significant divergence between market-implied perceptions of risk (CDS) and ratings-agencies perceptions among several nations. Most notably France and Italy (with Belgium close behind) appear considerably ‘over-rated’. Italy’s implied rating is equivalent to BB+ at S&P – well below its average rating of BBB+ and France’s implied rating of A is around four notches below its composite rating. Spain also appears set for more pain as its market price implies a sub-investment grade rating is imminent.
On the bright side – maybe Vietnam is due for an upgrade?
In what S&P calls a ‘Perfect Storm’, the next four years will see a minimum of $30 trillion in companies’ refinancing needs related to maturing bonds and loans and further they expect $13-$16 trillion more debt will be required to finance growth. With bond portfolios over-stuffed with corporate debt (since angst over sovereign risk has skewed asset allocation away from that cohort) the rating agency is concerned that ongoing bank deleveraging, these huge debt re-funding requirements, and the diminishment of central banks and governments to do anything about it leave serious problems with a credit overhang so large. Critically, especially as we hear calls for ‘growth’ plans from Europe, is the increasing likelihood that, as Reuters reports, this will potentially influence corporate credit quality and “alter the fragile equilibrium that currently exists in the global corporate credit landscape”. While S&P expect the refinancing needs may well be met “This global wall of nonfinancial corporate debt will potentially compound the credit rationing that may occur as banks seek to restructure their balance sheets, and bond and equity investors reassess their risk-return thresholds” which “raises the downside risk in global markets” as an inability to finance growth may well be the catalyst for another risk flare. “Governments and central banks have less fiscal and monetary flexibility to prevent serious problems emanating from future market disturbances. A perfect storm scenario would likely cause financing disruptions even for borrowers that are not highly leveraged.”
Of course the size of this massive refinancing wall dwarfs the recent discussion of how much of Europe’s financial system’s equity market cap is nothing but vaporware – since we note that 30% of this $30 trillion is for European financials and corporations.
… but not from us: after all we are known for being biased, which in the mainstream media parlance means calling it like it is. No – instead we leave it to none other than Bloomberg’s Jonathan Weil who does as good a job of being “biased” as we ever could: “Egan-Jones, which has been in business since 1992, could have continued operating as an independent publisher of ratings and analysis, not subject to government oversight or control. Instead it chose to play within the Big Three’s system, exposing itself to regulation and the whims of the SEC in exchange for the government’s imprimatur. Now it’s paying the price.” And not only that: as the most recent example of Spain just shows, where Egan Jones downgraded Spain 9 days ago and was ignored, but well ahead of everyone else, only to be piggybacked by S&P, and the whole world flipping out, it has become clear: calling out reality, and the fools that populate it, is becoming not only a dangerous game, but increasingly more illegal. Then again – this is not the first time we have seen just this happen in broad daylight, with nobody daring to say anything about it. In fact, this phenomenon tends to be a rather traditional side-effect of every declining superpower. Such as the case is right now…
The first time I wrote about Sean Egan and his small, independent credit-research firm, Egan-Jones Ratings Co., was in December 2007 for a column about the bond insurer MBIA Inc. (MBI) And man, did he nail it.
The three big credit raters — Moody’s Investors Service, Standard & Poor’s, and Fitch Ratings — all had AAA ratings on MBIA’s insurance unit, their highest grade. Egan said it deserved much lower. Anyone reading MBIA’s financial reports could see the company was losing money and needed billions of dollars of fresh capital.
By mid-2008, the Big Three had cut their ratings. Once again, Egan, a lonely voice of reason who saw the financial crisis coming, had shown his larger competitors to be incompetent or compromised. It was one of many great calls to come for Egan-Jones. As for MBIA, which had no revenue last quarter, it’s still struggling.
So if you had told me back then that the Securities and Exchange Commission’s enforcement division more than four years later would be accusing Egan, and his firm, of securities-law violations — but not any of the big rating companies — there’s no way I would have believed you. That’s what happened this week, though. Continue reading »