S&P's Credibility Under Fire As Agency Issues US Debt Warning
Bipartisan report in part blames S&P for financial crisis.
April 19, 2011 -- Standard & Poor's sent shockwaves through Wall Street and Washington when it lowered its outlook on U.S. federal debt to "negative," but the credit-rating agency's own credibility has recently been called into question.
In fact, just last week a Senate investigations subcommittee ripped Standard & Poor's in a comprehensive report on the financial meltdown. The bipartisan report -- issued by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. -- in part blamed S&P for the crisis, saying the agency had inflated ratings on mortgage-backed securities for their own profit, only to later downgrade those ratings, destroying the value of the securities and contributing to the crisis.
"It was not in the short-term economic interest of either Moody's or S&P, however, to provide accurate credit ratings for high-risk RMBS and CDO securities, because doing so would have hurt their own revenues," Levin and Coburn said in their report. "Instead, the credit rating agencies' profits became increasingly reliant on the fees generated by issuing a large volume of structured finance ratings."
In short, the senators say, "Inaccurate AAA credit ratings introduced risk into the U.S. financial system and constituted a key cause of the financial crisis."
The credibility of S&P is especially significant in the wake of the rating agency's statement on Monday that it was starting to lose faith in the government's creditworthiness. While S&P maintained its best-possible AAA rating for US federal debt, the firm lowered its outlook from "stable" to "negative." The statement means the agency now thinks there is a one-in-three chance that it will reduce the rating of the bonds in the next few years.
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