Thursday, 29 April 2010

The credit rating agencies

Greek debt was downgraded to 'junk' status by the credit rating agencies earlier this week, and yesterday Spain was taken down a notch from AA+ to AA - but who are these credit rating agencies, and are they right?

One of the major credit rating agencies, Standard & Poors, describes itself as "a leader of financial-market intelligence", while another, Moody's, modestly says its "commitment and expertise contribute to stable, transparent and integrated financial markets, protecting the integrity of credit".

Cast your mind back however to the beginning of this crisis - when the 'credit crunch' euphemism was still being used. What happened? A large number of structured investment vehicles, special purpose vehicles and collateralised debt obligations were found to be worthless - bundled up packages of unrepayable sub-prime mortgages and the like.

Now why would banks have traded these disastrous investments? The answer lies in the credit rating agencies which rated these truly junk investments as AAA in many cases. And who pays credit rating agencies to give a rating? The selling bank. So if you're client comes to you, and pays you lots of money to give something it is trying to sell a rating, do you (a) please your client; or (b) give an honest assessment? The credit crunch answered that question, yet still the credit rating agencies deem themselves fit to tell the world what is a good investment or not.

Is the Greek economy really more risky than a bundle of sub-prime mortgages? No - though there are problems. And what about Spain, Portugal, Italy and the UK, all highly indebted? Let's look at the effect of downgrades or the threat of downgrades:

1) It makes the interest rate on loans higher
2) It deters investors from buying debt / making further loans
3) This forces further austerity measures

The immediate effect on Greece has been further calls from creditors for more 'reform' and 'austerity measures'. This means the market taking more control through privatisation and the Greek people paying with cuts to their services, pensions and benefits. Fearing it could be downgraded to 'junk' next, Portugal announced tougher austerity measures yetserday - held at gunpoint to pay for the crisis by the very people who caused the crisis.

This is the problem of the credit markets being almost entirely unregulated and totally in private hands. Gangster capitalism is thriving

2 comments:

Andrew said...

The was also a a very good Guardian leader on this issue a few months ago.

Chris H said...

An excellent and clear post!

A shame we can't get rid of these credit agencies or at least mount a legal challenge in precipitating a crisis and screwing over the Greeks.