30 de julho de 2011

Agências de rating: opiniões do outro lado do Atlântico

A propósito das agências de rating, muito foi dito sobre o posicionamento dos EUA face à crise da dívida soberan europeia, de que não gostei.

Existe, efectivamente, em sectores da direita norte-americana animosidade contra o projecto da construção europeia, nomeadamente da União Económica e Monetária, induzida pelo receio de que a Europa desemboque em algo que venha a por em causa a hegemonia mundial norte-americana. Isso teve afloramentos, visíveis, caricatos, no caso do referendo irlandês, e é verdade, também, que de modo mais mitigado esse receio surja, de modo inesperado em outros sectores  (ver aqui). É óbvio que no contexto da ascenção económica, e necessariamente política (e militar), das economias asiáticas, a leitura mais estrita do interesse dos EUA deveria ir no sentido de querer um aliado o mais forte possível, ainda que a troco de uma sua maior autonomia. Que isso não seja percebido brada aos céus. Mas este nível de idiotice poderia levar à tentativa de prejudicar o Euro, agravando a situação económica europeia, atacando a sua periferia através das agências de rating?It seems a bit farfetched! Mais que não fosse um desastre económico europeu, no quadro actual, teria implicações negativas graves em toda a parte e, em particular, nos EUA.

Agora, que a intervenção das agências de rating norte-americanas não seja de todo inocente e de acordo com os protocolos de actuação que dizem pautam a sua actuação, disso não tenho qualquer dúvida. A dúvida está nos promenores. Do que se trata é de levar a bom porto actuações especulativas, custe a quem custar, e/ou a defesa dos interesses da banca internacional (os credores da Grécia, Portugal, ...) com destaque para a banca norte-americana que tem segurado a tomada de dívida soberana da periferia europeia?

Também não tenho dúvidas que existem apriorismos ideológicos e preconceitos a determinar a discriminação de dados sectores e países em relação a outros.

No entretanto, e é aqui que quero chegar, a situação dos EUA tem evoluído de maneira tão horrenda que as agências de rating, quaisquer que sejam os seus parti-pris, tiveram que começar a esbracejar um pouco quanto a ela, e aí começamos a ouvir a opinião informada norte-americana a pronunciar-se sobre elas, e o que se diz é instrutivo. Vejam (leitura total recomendada): 

"I stated my long held views about them: That they were a prime enabler of the credit crisis; that they were one of the most corrupt institutions in the United States, and had sold their ratings to the highest bidder. That their senior executives were criminally liable and deserved jail time. That S&P, Moody’s and Fitch themselves deserved to be executed — the same corporate death penalty that Arthur Anderson received. I stated I was perplexed as to why they were not put down like rabid dogs.

So with that modest position, you can imagine how pleased I was to see Zachary Karabell’s piece this morning in the Daily Beast:[....]"

Moody's Blues, Poor Standards, and the Debt - Paul Krugman| NYTimes.com: "Moody’s Blues, Poor Standards, and the Debt

The invaluable Mike Konczal tells us the truth about the rating agencies and public-sector debt: not only do they constantly make mistakes, they do so in a consistent direction. Namely, they hold public-sector borrowers to vastly higher standards than they hold private borrowers.

And who says this? The answer is, their own analysis.

It’s hard not to see this as essentially ideological: the rating agencies just treat governments as potential deadbeats, by definition.

Let me just top off Mike’s discussion with the last time the raters downgraded a major economy’s government. Here’s the 10-year bond rate in Japan:

See the downgrade? (It was in 2002).

The point is that when S&P or Moody’s speaks, that’s not the voice of “the market”. It’s just some guys with an agenda, and a very poor track record. And we have no idea how much effect their actions will have."

In 1996 Thomas Friedman said: “There are two superpowers in the world today in my opinion. There’s the United States and there’s Moody’s Bond Rating Service. The United States can destroy you by dropping bombs, and Moody’s can destroy you by downgrading your bonds. And believe me, it’s not clear sometimes who’s more powerful.” [...]

Two quick sources that you might find helpful. There’s a long running argument that the ratings agencies work as a mini-IMF, forcing austerity measures favorable to bond-holders everywhere from developing nations to municipalities and states here in the USA.

But their travels in the political sphere go beyond that. It’s tough to rank the awful financial-sector policy decisions that were made in the past decade, but two of the worst ones were very much influenced by rating agency political pressures. When Congress tried to put some resolution powers in place to deal with the possibility of the GSEs collapsing, the ratings agencies put pressure there. When states were trying to put in sensible state-level regulations to deal with predatory subprime lending, the ratings agencies put pressure on federal regulators to overrule (“pre-empt”) them, leaving state housing regulatory powers at the mercy of the pro-bank OCC.

[continua ....]

There’s a few ways to think about how the ratings agencies could add value to the financial marketplace. Information tends to be a public good, so there’s a free rider problem towards any individual investor paying to rate a bond. This is one reason why issuers tend to pay for the rating. There are also instruments so complex, or with so little historical and comparative information, or so illiquid, that the ratings agencies can bring their so-called expertise to give information.

But the United States bond market is one of the largest, most-liquid, most-studied, most transparent markets in the world. There’s nothing the ratings agencies have that any else doesn’t have.

And what’s more important, the ratings agencies own internal analysis shows that they are terrible at rating government debt. Their ratings are all off, as government, especially those with a printing press for their own currency, simply don’t behave like the corporate world they were designed to analyze. And rather than just being wrong, they are wrong in that they are always overestimating the likelihood that governments will default.

Sorry for the long block-quote, but it is important to give you a sense at how awful their ratings are with public-sector debt, and the serious consequences that has for access to capital. From a fact sheet with links to complaints against specific agencies (my bold): [....]

In June of 2001, S&P published a study commissioned by its Analytics Policy Board that reviewed public bond defaults rates from 1986-2000. The June 2001 report concluded that “the number of defaults and cumulative default rates are extremely low for public finance obligations rated by Standar & Poor’s” and that “no defaults of ‘AAA’ or ‘AA’ rated debt occurred in the 1986-2000 period.” S&P attributed this stability to the fundamental nature of governments in that “governments have ‘perpetual’ existence” and that bankruptcy typically is not an option for governments…. [continua ....]

The ratings agencies are so in the plumbing of the financial system that even with these qualifiers they can wreck havoc on US financing. There is one policy point Moody’s has brought up that I’d like to see happen: eliminate the debt ceiling already.

"Until recently, no one in the UK dared cross Rupert Murdoch​ thanks to his influence on the political process. And although Murdoch is going down the same path in the US, of using political power to increase his economic power, the rating agencies seem to have easily trumped him on this one.

Jane Hamsher​ chronicles the brazen way in which Standard & Poor’s is throwing its weight around in the budget negotiations:

Standard and Poors is evidently meeting with high-stakes gamblers and letting them know where to place their bets as they manipulate the global economy. But they are also playing a much more sinister game. Like a cat toying with a mouse, they are also inserting themselves in the political process and setting themselves up to be kingmaker in the 2012 election."
Hamsher calls S&P a “kingmaker” and this isn’t an exaggeration given the effect their actions are having. Either way, they will shoot the economy in the head. Either the negotiators come up with package that suits their demands, which will lead to steep enough cuts that the economy will weaken in 2012, making an Obama loss highly probable (fresh polls not only show his popularity falling, but independent voters now rate the Republicans as able to do a better job on the economy). And failure to reach a deal soon before Treasury runs into cash flow constraints and/or a downgrade is almost certain to hit the economy even harder. So even if Obama were to have a brain transplant and realize that the path he has committed himself to is irresponsible and destructive, S&P has a gun to his head and will allow him no retreat.

         Ratings agencies shouldn't have so much influence:
The Biggest Driver in the Deficit Battle: Standard & Poor’s, by Robert Reich: ...All of America’s big credit-rating agencies — Moody’s, Fitch, and Standard & Poor’s — have warned they might cut America’s credit rating if a deal isn’t reached soon to raise the debt ceiling. ... But Standard & Poor’s has gone a step further: It... insists any deal must also ... reduce the nation’s long-term budget deficit by $4 trillion — something neither Harry Reid’s nor John Boehner’s plans do.
If Standard & Poor’s downgrades America’s debt, the other two big credit-raters are likely to follow. The result: You’ll be paying higher interest on ... every ... penny you borrow. ... In other words, Standard & Poor’s is threatening that if the ten-year budget deficit isn’t cut by $4 trillion..., you’ll pay more – even if the debt ceiling is lifted next week.
With Republicans in the majority in the House, there’s no way to lop $4 trillion of the budget without harming Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, as well as education, Pell grants, healthcare, highways and bridges, and everything else the middle class and poor rely on.
And you thought Republicans were the only extortionists around.
Who is Standard & Poor’s to tell America how much debt it has to shed in order to keep its credit rating?
Standard & Poor’s didn’t exactly distinguish itself prior to Wall Street’s financial meltdown... Had they done their job and warned investors how much risk Wall Street was taking on,... taxpayers wouldn’t have had to bail out Wall Street; millions ... would ... be working now instead of collecting unemployment insurance; the government wouldn’t have had to inject the economy with a massive stimulus...; and far more tax revenue would now be pouring into the Treasury... In other words, had Standard & Poor’s done its job, today’s budget deficit would be far smaller.
And where was Standard & Poor’s (and the two others) during the George W. Bush administration – when W. turned a ... budget surplus ... into a gaping deficit? Standard & Poor didn’t object to Bush’s giant tax cuts for the wealthy. Nor did it raise a warning about his huge Medicare drug benefit (i.e., corporate welfare for Big Pharma), or his decision to fight two expensive wars without paying for them. ...
So why has Standard & Poor’s decided now’s the time to crack down on the federal budget — when it gave free passes to Wall Street’s risky securities and George W. Bush’s giant tax cuts ... thereby contributing to the very crisis it's now demanding be addressed?
Could it have anything to do with the fact that the Street pays Standard & Poor’s bills?
Is there any evidence that ratings agencies are influenced by the fact that Wall Street    pays their bills?:
Did Rating Agencies Give Preference to Big Banks?, by Matthew Philips: At the heart of the financial crisis was the market for mortgage-backed securities (MBS). These are the “toxic assets” that larded up bank balance sheets and all but froze the credit markets in the fall of 2008 ... thanks to the AAA ratings they received from the rating agencies Moody’s, S&P, and Fitch. These firms that allowed so much junk to be passed off as gold were essentially the enablers of the financial crisis.

The relationship between the rating agencies and banks is a perfect case study of flawed incentives. With banks paying them to rate their investment products, and so much money pouring in at the height of the mortgage-boom..., Moody’s, S&P, and Fitch had a strong incentive to play along.

A new study adds more fodder to the argument that these agencies were unduly influenced by the institutions whose products they were grading. It basically posits that the more MBS an institution issued, the better rating their stuff received. Here’s the abstract:
We examine whether rating agencies (Moody’s, S&P, and Fitch) reward large issuers of mortgage-backed securities, who bring substantial business, by granting them unduly favorable ratings. The initial yield on both AAA-rated and non-AAA rated tranches sold by large issuers is higher than that on similar tranches sold by small issuers during the market boom years of 2004-2006. ... We conclude that large issuers receive more favorable ratings...

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