Franken Targets Rating Agencies

Sen. Al Franken has written an amendment to financial overhaul legislation that would seek to prevent securities underwriters from hiring rating agencies based on which ones proved most willing to give their deals the highest possible ratings.

The three largest rating agencies, Fitch Ratings, Moody's Investors Service and Standard & Poor's, have all come under fire of late for their role in the financial crisis of 2008, and would be most affected by the proposal.

"If a failing student paid their teacher to turn their F into an A, everyone would agree that what the teacher had done was unethical," the Minnesota Democrat told "But right now, investors are being sold a phony bill of goods. We need to protect consumers from the pay-to-play system that rewards Wall Street players at the expense of Main Street."

Senators Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., have agreed to cosponsor the amendment, according to a spokesman for Franken. The amendment is expected to be formally introduced later this week.

Meanwhile, Nelson is also preparing his own possible amendment that would seek to hold rating agencies more accountable once their ratings, akin to Good Housekeeping seals of approval, are handed out.

Currently, agencies continue to monitor credit ratings only if they are paid to do so. Nelson's proposal would mandate ongoing surveillance.

Spokesmen at Moody's, S&P and Fitch all declined comment.

The Obama administration has pushed hard for financial reform, which has passed the House and is set to be debated in the Senate. The centerpiece of the reform effort is a package sponsored by Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., but which thus far has failed to generate any Republican support.

Senate Probe Singled Out Raters

Last month, the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., issued a scathing assessment of the role of rating agencies in the mortgage market meltdown and subsequent financial crisis, which in turn prompted one of the worst U.S. recessions in generations.

The Senate probe assigned raters a sizable amount of blame while accusing them of compromising the ratings process in pursuit of increasingly outsized fee revenue from Wall Street underwriters.

Banks paid rating agencies hundreds of millions during the mortgage bubble, allowing for an explosion of subprime-mortgage-tied instruments such as the Abacus 2007-1 collateralized debt obligation (CDO) that was at the heart of the Securities and Exchange Commission's fraud case brought recently against powerhouse investment bank Goldman Sachs.

Some 91 percent of the triple-A rated subprime residential mortgage-backed securities issued in 2007 have since been downgraded to junk status.

One of the major findings of the Senate subcommittee, tasked with identifying the root causes of the financial meltdown, was the appearance of collusion between Wall Street banks, such as Goldman, and the raters. In some cases, banks shopped deals around, deals which could earn raters hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees.

Banks routinely selected the raters most willing to hand out the coveted triple-A rating, according to Levin.

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