The Ratings Agency 'Morons' That Brought Us the Financial Crisis

The most recent Matt Taibbi story about financial chicanery and corruption concerns the ratings agencies, who happily doled out AAA ratings to packages of shit right up until the whole economy collapsed in 2008. Just how duplicitous were these allegedly impartial pillars of finance?

Well, very, as has been well established in the years since 2008. To briefly recap: ratings agencies like Moody's, S&P, and Fitch get paid to assign ratings to various securities cooked up by investment banks and the like, which investors use to assess how risky these securities are. Stupidly, these ratings agencies are paid by the institutions whose securities they are rating. They are therefore incentivized to give good ratings in order to retain business. (The fact that this payment system still persists to this day is one of the great leftover outrages of our post-recession financial system.)

Anyhow, ratings agencies routinely gave great ratings to shitty securities in order to help their own bottom lines, is the short version of this whole story. The risk was passed on to hapless sucker investors, who got screwed when the whole thing blew up. The agencies and the banks made out great. All of this is well known. Taibbi's story delves into a couple of specific instances of this transparently ridiculous ratings game, and comes up with some worthwhile anecdotes. Like this bit about S&P executive Elwyn Wong, who blew up after repeated entreaties from a Morgan Stanley banker to use a bad technique called "grandfathering" to assign a rating to a security whose real risk was almost unknowable:

Wong took the news that S&P was holding up deals over the grandfathering issue badly. "Lord help our fucking scam," he said. "This has to be the stupidest place I have worked at." Wong, incidentally, was later hired by the U.S. Office of the Comptroller Currency, our top federal banking regulator.

And one banker's reaction to a positive report from Moody's about a toxic subprime loan security:

The S&P report was so brazen that it even shocked a Morgan Stanley banker involved in the SIV deals. "I cannot believe these morons would reaffirm in this market," chortled the banker in an e-mail the day after the paper was released.

This ratings system, which played a very direct role in the last financial meltdown, persists largely intact to this day. Read Taibbi's full story here.
[Rolling Stone. Photo: AP]