Ratings agencies: Crisis in ratings land? | The Economist
PROTESTING that only fools would rely on your product to make investment decisions may seem a dangerous argument to make. Yet it is one that has served credit-ratings agencies well over the years, allowing them to sell ratings to debt issuers while abjuring legal responsibility for the quality of their work. A ruling by an Australian court this week, however, has raised questions for the industry about its immunity from prosecution.
The ruling in the Federal Court of Australia on November 5th held Standard & Poor’s (S&P) jointly liable with ABN AMRO, a bank, for the losses suffered by local councils that had invested in credit derivatives that were designed to pay a high rate of interest yet were also meant to be very safe. The derivatives in question were “constant proportion debt obligations” (CPDOs). These instruments make even the most ardent fans of complex financial engineering blush: they are designed to add leverage when they take losses in order to make up the shortfall. S&P’s models, which the court said blindly adopted inputs provided by ABN AMRO, gave the notes a AAA rating, judging they had about as much chance of going bust as the American government.