Would regulation stop the mistakes of rating agencies that contributed to the 2008 crisis?

I remember watching The Big Short and feeling great indignation at the S&P employee who told Steve Carell that rating agencies were pressured into issuing unreasonably high ratings because they were beholden to their customers. If true, this represented an unbelievable moral hazard, which is often cited as the reason for the failures of the ratings agencies–and as a reason for regulating these agencies.

However, more in-depth research and consideration reveals that this answer is incomplete and, in many ways, incorrect. Claire Hill, a law professor at the University of Minnesota Law School and director of the Institute for Law and Rationality, clearly and convincingly critiques this simplistic explanation by recognizing market influences and proposing alternate causes, which also means that if we are looking to avoid a future crisis, we need to look to alternative solutions to the regulatory measures that we currently employ. I don’t think it could be said better than she does in her abstract:

Why did rating agencies do such a bad job rating subprime securities? The conventional answer draws heavily on the fact that ratings are paid for by the issuers: Issuers could, and do, “buy” high ratings from willing sellers, the rating agencies.

The conventional answer cannot be wholly correct or even nearly so. Issuers also pay rating agencies to rate their corporate bond issues, yet very few corporate bond issues are rated AAA. If the rating agencies were selling high ratings, why weren’t high ratings sold for corporate bonds? Moreover, for some types of subprime securities, a particular rating agency’s rating was considered necessary. Where a Standard & Poor’s rating was deemed necessary by the market, why would Standard & Poor’s risk its reputation by giving a rating higher (indeed, much higher) than it knew was warranted?

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, giving AAA ratings to securities of much lower quality is something that can’t be done for long. A rating agency that becomes known for selling its high ratings will soon find that nobody will be paying anything for its ratings, high or low.

In my view, that issuers pay for ratings may have been necessary for the rating agencies to have done as bad a job as they did rating subprime securities, but it was not sufficient. Many other factors contributed, including, importantly, that rating agencies “drank the Kool-Aid.” They convinced themselves that the transaction structures could do what they were touted as being able to do: with only a thin cushion of support, produce a great quantity of high-quality securities. Rating agencies could take comfort, too, or so they thought, in the past – the successful, albeit short, recent history of subprime securitizations, and the longer history of successful mortgage securitizations.

“Issuer pays” did not so much make the rating agencies give higher ratings than they thought were warranted as it gave the agencies a “can do” mindset regarding the task at hand – to achieve the rating the issuers desired, working with them to modify the deal structures as needed. That the issuers were paying motivated the agencies to drink the Kool-Aid; having drunk the Kool-Aid, the agencies gave the ratings they did. My account casts doubt on the efficacy of many of the solutions presently being proposed and suggests some features that more efficacious solutions should have.

I very much recommend reading the full article, which gives more nuance and information about the weaknesses of proposed solutions for rating agency mistakes or malfeasance. This should also be food for thought concerning the general perspective we should have in examining “market failures,” as there are often market feedback systems that mitigate problems, and turning to regulation by reflex can cause unintended harm or even miss the mark entirely.


Reference: Hill, Claire. “Why Did Rating Agencies Do Such a Bad Job Rating Subprime Securities?” University of Pittsburgh Law Review (2010): 10-18. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1582539.

Health Insurance is Illegal

Health insurance is a crime.  No, I’m not using a metaphor.  I’m not saying it’s a mess, though it certainly is that.  I’m saying it’s illegal to offer real health insurance in America.  To see why … (more)

Gold and Money

Nothing seems to arouse passions—pro and con—quite like suggestions that gold should once again play a role in our money. “Only gold is money,” says one side. “It’s a barbarous relic,” says the other. Let’s turn down the heat a bit and look into some propositions about gold. That should lead us to some reasonable ideas about whether or how gold might return.

Propositions About Gold

Gold has intrinsic value. Actually, nothing has intrinsic value. The value of any good or service resides in the minds of individuals contemplating the benefits they might derive from it. What gold does have is some rather remarkable physical properties that make it very likely that people will continue to value it highly: luster, corrosion resistance, divisibility, malleability, high thermal and electrical conductivity, and a high degree of scarcity. All the gold ever mined would only fill one large swimming pool, and most of that gold is still recoverable.

Only gold is money. Although gold was once used as money, that is no longer the case. Money is whatever is generally accepted as a medium of exchange in a particular historical setting. Right now, government-issued fiat money, unbacked by any commodity, is the only kind of money we find anywhere in the world, with some possible obscure exceptions.

Perhaps people who say this mean that gold is the only form of money that can ensure stability. That’s what future Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan thought in 1967, when he wrote “Gold and Economic Freedom” for Ayn Rand’s newsletter. “In the absence of the gold standard, there is no way to protect savings from confiscation through inflation,” he said. When later asked by U.S. Rep. Ron Paul whether he stood by that article, Greenspan said he did. But he weaseled out by saying a return to gold was unnecessary because central banks had learned to produce the same results gold would produce. Continue reading

Glass-Steagall and Deregulation: What Went Wrong?

Nothing, really. Consortium members Warren Gibson and Jeffrey Rogers Hummel write in the Freeman on Glass-Steagall and what its repeal in the 1990’s meant for the economic crisis that began in 2008:

The timing of the repeal of Glass-Steagall makes this deregulatory move a convenient scapegoat for the financial crisis. But the crisis began with the housing collapse, a result of government encouragement of unsound lending practices. Financial firms took too much risk with mortgage-backed securities, in part because of moral hazard engendered by government guarantees and partly because bond rating firms were not as independent as was once thought. The limited liability that the investment banks gained when they became corporations may also have amplified moral hazard. There is no good reason to believe that Glass-Steagall, had it remained in effect, would have prevented any of these problems.

I highly recommend this piece. Lots of good history behind the law as well as a very clear explanation of the different types of banking services, what they do, and how they are created.