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The US is seeking as much as $5 billion in penalties from S&P to punish it for inflated credit ratings. Scott Eells / Bloomberg News
The US is seeking as much as $5 billion in penalties from S&P to punish it for inflated credit ratings. Scott Eells / Bloomberg News

More blame for the financial mess will not tidy the decks

Standard & Poor's this week took on the role of the world's family dog as it was blamed for the financial bad smell permeating credit markets and for causing the global financial meltdown.

Whenever a particularly noxious odour is detected in our house somebody invariably blames our five-year-old chocolate Labrador, Nogs.

It is usually clear that Nogs is not the culprit, but she takes the blame, dutifully casting her eyes downwards in shame before skulking off to lie under the dining room table.

Blaming the dog does nothing to improve the domestic atmosphere but somehow it makes everyone feel better and, of course, disguises the identity of the true culprit.

This week Standard & Poor's, the global ratings agency, took on the role of the world's family dog as it was blamed for the financial bad smell permeating credit markets and for causing the global financial meltdown that has dogged us all for the past five years.

The United States government has filed a civil lawsuit against the ratings agency claiming fraud and demanding US$5 billion (Dh18.37bn) in reparations - almost equivalent to all of S&Ps' profits for the past seven years.

The government claims that S&P wilfully and fraudulently affixed AAA credit ratings to products that were in fact linked to subprime mortgages that were in turn highly likely to default and therefore not eligible for such a copper bottomed rating.

It is true that S&P - just like the other ratings agencies Moody's and Fitch - did give overly optimistic credit ratings to subprime mortgage backed products. The company has admitted as much for years. Whether it did so fraudulently is, I think, almost impossible to determine and highly unlikely.

S&P, of course, is vigorously defending its position, largely with the claim that it got things very wrong, but then so did everyone else, not least the US government, whom nobody is suing for $5bn.

It also makes the point that it does not provide insurance for investors with its credit ratings. It says it is in fact a publishing company that publishes opinions about possible events in the future and how likely they are to occur. An S&P credit rating is no substitute for the old maxim of caveat emptor - buyer beware.

The other side argues, however, that in taking as much as $750,000 from each of the toxic bond issuers in fees, S&P is indeed liable to take some of the blame and that the free speech defence at the centre of its "publisher of opinions" argument is flimsy at best.

I think S&P was foolhardy, profit motivated and blinded by the housing bubble that dominated the first decade of this century. But then again, weren't we all?

From the poor, some would say greedy, mortgage holder who borrowed far more money than he was able to pay back to buy a house well beyond his means; to the mortgage brokers who peddled them; to the lenders who employed the mortgage brokers and the investment banks who created the collateralised debt obligations; to the ratings agencies who helped to sell them with credit ratings. They all got it wrong.

And let us not forget the governments, not just the US government, who relaxed regulations to such an extent that such toxic bundles of worthless debt were allowed to be created.

All of these players, S&P included, need reining in with stricter regulation. Actual watchdogs are needed to monitor such new and exotic investment products properly to prevent them coming to market in the first place.

There have been a raft of new laws designed to deter the ratings agencies from being so optimistic in an attempt to prevent a similar event in the future. But as we have so often seen, it is the lack of a watchdog with real teeth that is the principle failure of financial market regulation all over the world.

What will doubtless follow this latest S&P case - as with the 13 other cases filed by individual US states at the same time - is years and years of very costly legal wrangling. Months of talks over a settlement have already come to nought and legal experts all over the world agree the US case is far from cast iron.

So stop blaming the dog for the terrible smell in the financial markets and open a window.

We don't need to apportion more blame, we need to build a less toxic environment in which to do business so we can put the wasted years of financial ruin behind us.

 

jdoran@thenational.ae

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