There's been a lot of attention paid to S&P over the past couple weeks, after it was the first of the big three credit rating agencies to "downgrade" US debt. As we pointed out at the time, it's pretty ridiculous to get worked up over the downgrade, because it's just one company's opinion
. And, yes, for very ridiculous reasons, the opinions of a few ratings firms are written into the law, and some debt holders are required to hold certain types of debt based solely on the opinions of these companies. The real problem is that such opinions matter. In fact, as many commentators noticed, after the S&P downgrade, people actually rushed to buy up more US debt
, driving down the cost, which is the exact opposite of what you would think should happen.
Of course, S&P has other problems. Nate Silver did a brilliant (as per usual) takedown of "Substandard and Pourous," in which he noted that S&P's ratings are pretty dreadful
. He goes through the data and shows that listening to S&P will make you poorer. Basically, lots of other information will give you a much better indicator of the likelihood of default on sovereign debt. The specific problem?
S.&P. ratings tend to lag, rather than lead, the market. That is, in cases where the market’s view of default risk is misaligned with S.&P.’s, S.&P. is a good bet to change their rating to catch up to market perception.
And, of course, lots of people have pointed out how poorly S&P did in the housing bubble, rating crap bundles of mortgages as investment grade when it was clearly junk. Then there's other general sleaziness. Pro Publica points out that S&P -- who, it should be mentioned, apparently made a $2 trillion "error" right before downgrading the US debt, is apparently lobbying against a regulation
that would require it to report "significant errors."
But does this, as some have suggested, mean that S&P should get into some sort of legal trouble? Michael Moore even made the ridiculous suggestion that the company's CEO should be arrested
. Really? You would think that Moore, who has been pretty damn critical of US government policy over the years, would think twice before thinking that someone should be "arrested" for stating an opinion
that was critical of the government's ability to repay its debts.
But, of course, we still have some of the First Amendment, and that means you can state an opinion -- even one that turns out to be wrong or useless -- and not be arrested for it. Once again, the real issue is this idea that we need
a ratings agency to determine the quality of debt. In the equity world, plenty of investment banks issue "ratings" on the equity (usually some form of "buy, sell, hold") but no one takes them quite as seriously as the debt ratings from S&P, Moody's and Fitch. Again, I'd argue that this is because of the requirements in law about the kinds of debt certain operations can hold, and tying that to just a few opinions. If we had the same rules for equity, we'd see a very different stock market today. Sure, when a big bank downgrades a stock, people sell, but people implicitly recognize it's an opinion. When it comes to debt, something about the ratings system and the requirements about it makes people think that the ratings are more "fact" than opinion.
So, let's get away from that entirely. Let's dump the requirements that any debt holdings should be required of certain levels based solely on the opinions of these ratings agencies with terrible track records. Instead, what's wrong with just letting the market price decide how trustworthy the debt is? You don't have to do away with ratings entirely. Anyone can have an opinion. But without the requirements that make just a few firms integral to the market, you could have a lot more open competition on who really has the best opinion on the viability of certain debt.
So don't arrest the head of S&P. But, stop giving the ratings from these few firms special status that makes people think they're something more than just a random company's opinion.