In Senate testimony, ratings agency heads won't take the blame

McClatchy NewspapersApril 23, 2010 

Ray McDaniel of Moody's takes the oath before testifying before Congress

KEVIN G. HALL / MCT

WASHINGTON — The chairman and chief executive of Moody's Corp. said Friday that he didn't know that his company continued to give investment-grade ratings to complex financial instruments backed by shaky subprime mortgages even after it downgraded billions of dollars worth of such deals in the summer of 2007.

His admission came during a daylong hearing by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which is looking into the origins of the nation's worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

Moody's chief Ray McDaniel, under questioning, said that he didn't think his company had continued to rate complex deals backed by U.S. mortgages after it and competitor Standard & Poor's jolted the markets in July 2007 with massive downgrades of earlier deals.

"I apologize, I do not recall that," McDaniel said.

The panel's chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., then presented him with documentation that both Moody's and S&P gave investment-grade ratings to a Citigroup deal in December 2007, worth almost $400 million, backed by shaky subprime loans that by then clearly were toxic.

The point Levin was making — and made repeatedly — is that credit-rating agencies did whatever was needed to get lucrative fees, some as high as $1.4 million, for rating complex deals.

Later, McDaniel stressed that preserving market share "is not as important as ratings quality."

While other Wall Street executives have expressed contrition when they appeared before Congress, McDaniel and former S&P President Kathleen Corbet were unapologetic on Friday.

Throughout the day in earlier testimony and in e-mails released by Levin, however, former Moody's and S&P officials told how they were pushed out or quit in frustration because managers badgered them to "massage" complex deals until they could land the business.

A McClatchy investigation in October documented how top managers from the structured finance division, which rated the complex deals, were moved into the top executive suites at Moody's and effectively took over the company.

McDaniel and Corbet said they were unaware that their analysts felt pressured to sacrifice the quality of investment-grade ratings to maintain market share and earn the huge accompanying fees.

Investment-grade ratings gave investors the illusion of safe bets, allowing big Wall Street firms such as Goldman Sachs to peddle the securities across the globe. Moody's and its chief competitors were key players in the prelude to a near meltdown of global finance in September 2008.

Called to appear before the panel, Richard Michalek, a former Moody's vice president and senior credit officer, described the ratings process for deals that could bring more than $1 million in fees as a "must say yes" atmosphere.

Frank Raiter, a former managing director at S&P and the head of the group that rated pools of residential mortgages, told the panel that analysts routinely sought direction from top management about the shaky deals they were being asked to rate.

"The guidance was not forthcoming from the top," he said, later adding, "I retired because I got tired of the frustration."

Levin read e-mail after e-mail from inside the ratings agencies about deals that never should have been rated, much less received investment-grade ratings.

"These e-mails are just devastating to the kind of culture that is going on here," he said.

Most striking was testimony from Eric Kolchinsky, a Moody's managing director who in 2007 was in charge of the division that rated the complex deals called collateralized debt obligations. CDOs are securities backed by pools of U.S. mortgages that have been packaged together into bonds and sold to investors.

Kolchinsky recounted how in the first two quarters of 2007, his group generated more than $200 million in revenue for Moody's by giving complex deals investment-grade ratings _ which told investors that they were safe bets. In the late summer of 2007, however, Kolchinsky was informed by superiors that bonds issued a year earlier were about to be severely downgraded.

That should have required a new methodology for ratings on deals that were still pending, but when he tried to do that, he was told not to. It amounted to securities fraud, in his opinion.

"My manager declined to do anything about the potential fraud, so I raised the issue to a more senior manager," he testified. He said that the complaint resulted in a change to methodology. "I believe this action saved Moody's from committing securities fraud. Because of the culture, I knew what I did would possibly jeopardize my role at Moody's."

He was right. A month later, he was sent a nasty e-mail asking why his market share slipped from 98 percent to 94 percent in the third quarter. The e-mail came, he said, just days after Moody's had downgraded more than $33 billion in bonds backed by subprime mortgage loans. Less than two months after challenging the integrity of the ratings, Kolchinsky was removed from his post and given a lower-paying job elsewhere in the company with far less responsibility. He eventually left.

Under questioning from Levin, Kolchinsky acknowledged that he and his staff rated the complex Goldman Sachs deal that this month became the subject of fraud charges brought against Goldman by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The SEC alleges that Goldman failed to disclose to investors that hedge fund mogul John Paulson helped pick the mortgages in the deal with an eye toward betting that they'd fail. Kolchinsky said this information was never shared with Moody's.

"I did not know and … I am fairly certain my staff did not know either," Kolchinsky said.

Asked by Levin whether that would have affected the rating the deal received, Kolchinsky said yes.

"From my perspective it is something I would have wanted to know. It is more of a qualitative, not quantitative assessment. It changes the incentives of the structure," Kolchinsky said. "It just changes the whole dynamic of the structure."

In one e-mail presented by Levin, an S&P employee inquiring about evidence that subprime lender Fremont General was showing problems with poor underwriting was told not to worry about it. Levin seized on this e-mail when grilling Susan Barnes, an S&P managing director, angrily asking her why relevant information and poor performance was discarded.

"Why doesn't the supervisor say, 'Damn right, it's relevant,'?" demanded Levin, eventually coaxing a response from Barnes.

Barnes said that, "The assumptions we use in our criteria have obviously not panned out the way we had expected."

In written remarks, Corbet gave no ground. She said all deals were rated by teams of analysts, who were supervised by individual managers. Her role as president, Corbet said, was to set overall strategy and work with her parent company, McGraw-Hill.

McDaniel also offered no apology. Instead, he said that his company took steps to remedy what was going wrong as information became available. Former Moody's executives testified to the contrary.

McDaniel said that Moody's warned of declining underwriting standards for mortgages as early as 2003. However, Moody's continued to rate the complex deals backed by U.S. mortgages, which became a huge portion of the company's business.

Moody's is under pressure on many fronts. California Attorney General Jerry Brown this week filed a court action seeking to force Moody's to comply with a subpoena he issued for information seven months ago. A special Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, charged by Congress to report on the causes of the crisis, issued a subpoena to Moody's, complaining that the company has failed to provide information in a timely manner.

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