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Rating Agency Overhaul Falls Short

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New fee structure leaves off kilter incentives in place.

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So much for accountability.

The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday of the striking of a preliminary deal between New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and Standard & Poor's (MHP), Moody's Investment Corporation (MCO) and Fitch Ratings.

Under the proposed settlement, the three major debt rating firms will change the way they're paid for evaluating non-prime mortgage-backed securities. No fines will be imposed for their role in the collapse in value of bonds they once rated as investment grade. Despite the billions of dollars lost as a result of their shoddy reviews, the agencies will not admit (nor be forced to admit) any wrongdoing.

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Cuomo hopes the new plan allows rating companies to be tough on issuers, while still generating income. Simply, agencies will charge issuers for reviewing potential securities and, if selected to rate the deal, earn an additional service fee. Additionally, agencies must disclose on a quarterly basis which deals they've reviewed. It's expected the increased transparency will help investors better evaluate the relationship between issuer and rater.

While the new fee structure is a step in the right direction, it fails to address the root of the issue. As I noted earlier this year:

The problem is one of incentives. As long as rating agencies are paid by the issuers of securities rather than investors, they'll be financially motivated to hand out generous ratings. In the for-profit business of rating debt, business is awarded to the firm that provides the best ratings.

Any marginal benefit from increased transparency will be wiped out by the impact of higher borrowing costs. The new fee structure is likely to increases ratings-related expenses, which will no doubt be passed on to investors. Investment banks like Lehman Brothers (LEH), Goldman Sachs (GS) and Merrill Lynch (MER) -- already under intense pressure to sustain profit margins -- aren't about to shoulder the extra burden alone.

The rating agencies were an integral part of Wall Street's debt experiment gone wrong. Regulators had the opportunity to make a bold statement: That those responsible for the implosion of the credit markets would be held accountable. Instead, the lack of material change in the relationship between issuer and rating agency demonstrates the ongoing unwillingness of regulators to police the very markets they're charged with monitoring.

Professor Macke's take
on Moody's and S&P is perhaps blunt, but not unreasonable: "[The rating agencies] don't have to justify the myriad 'one off' mistakes they've made over the years, but rather their very existence."

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