He Who Pays The Piper Calls The Tune

There’s an article in the Wall Street Journal today entitled, “Credit-Ratings Firms Get Caught Up In Subprime Meltdown.” In some ways I anticipated this in my article at RealMoney, “Snarls in Insurance Investigation, Part 2.”

I experienced the difficulties that the ratings agencies had in 2001-2002 as a corporate bond manager. They are paid by the issuers, and have a conflict of interest. They can argue that they are zealous to protect their reputations, but in the short run, they get paid by issuers to rate deals. Only in times of crisis do they adjust their standards to meet the needs of the bond buyers.

In short, the problems with the ratings agencies are the same as the problems with auditors. He who pays the piper calls the tune. Except in crises, the ratings agencies are more beholden to the issuers than their subscribers. All the more reason to allow alternative ratings agencies into existence, to challenge their oligopoly.