As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Thursday, July 16, 2009

CalPERS Goes After The Rating Agencies

People are justifiably worried that credit ratings agencies like Moody's, Fitch and S&P have lowered California's credit ratings to near-junk bond status. The nature of the way we pay our bills means that we will eventually have to access bond markets to borrow, and these low ratings will dramatically increase the cost of that borrowing. I've said often that the risk of default on any bond issue, as a Constitutional matter, is infinitesimal, yet in this case, the rating agencies are being overly conservative and reflecting the fears of Wall Street.

And yet the rating agencies are not independent actors. They are owned by banks who issue the securities they rate, and throughout the financial meltdown, they continued - almost until the end - to rate mortgage-backed securities filled with subprime loans at the highest quality, facilitating the buying frenzy. In fact, the rating agencies structured many of the deals in order to ensure high ratings, intervening in the market for those securities instead of dispassionately assessing them. Now CalPERS, the largest public pension fund in the country, which has been hammered by losses in the stock market, is suing those rating agencies for their gross negligence.

The lawsuit blames the three big Wall Street credit rating agencies – Moody's Investors Service, Standard & Poor's and Fitch Ratings – for effectively luring CalPERS into a series of disastrous 2006 deals by giving the investments "wildly inaccurate and unreasonably high" grades.

The investments have gone bust at a cost of "perhaps more than $1 billion," said the California Public Employees' Retirement System in the suit, filed last Thursday in San Francisco Superior Court.

The losses represent a small portion of the roughly $60 billion CalPERS has lost in the past year due to declines in its stocks, real estate and other holdings. The losses are so steep that CalPERS has served notice that it will demand higher contributions from the state and the local governments that rely on the fund for pensions.

As a large industry actor, CalPERS has some ability to move policy in the financial world. And they are hitting one of the biggest targets here. Barry Ritholtz explains further:

Now, here comes the fun part: Calpers doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the money. Sure, the financial instruments at hand (Cheyne Finance, Stanfield Victoria Funding and Sigma Finance) have defaulted on their payment obligations. The losses to Calpers are ~!$1 billion.

But that’s not what’s going on here: These Left Coasters want their pound of flesh. They don’t care for the Ratings Agency folks, and consider them a blight on the investment landscape.

The goal of the litigation (as I see it) isn’t to make the rating agencies pay a financial penalty; rather, it is to publicly try them just as the regulatory rules are being rewritten. I also predict that CALPERS is going to attempt to not just win, but humiliate these agencies, call them out in the most embarrassing way possible, trash the senior executives, and make things very uncomfortable in general for these firms.

They don’t want them to merely suffer — they want to destroy their unique position as an Oligopoly, to remove them from having a special status under the SEC rules.

The credit rating agencies are a FRAUD, and I would argue that this downgrading of California bonds regardless of Constitutional dictates represents a furthering of that fraud. CalPERS is fighting back on principle, because the relationship between the rating agencies and the financial industry they are supposed to serve is among the sleaziest on Wall Street.

Under Phil Angelides, CalPERS used its considerable clout to move toward progressive reforms in the financial industry. Bill Lockyer has done less of this. But I'm glad to see the fund standing up on behalf of not only its clients, but every investor, against the near-criminal structure of these rating agencies.

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