Tough Questions for the Credit-Rating Agencies

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Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, is sworn in to testify before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission in New York City

It's probably not too often that I Love Lucy comes up in conversation about credit-rating companies. But at Wednesday's hearing of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, the classic scene of Lucy and Ethel being overwhelmed by a fast-moving chocolate-assembly line was referenced more than once. "Did you ever feel like Lucy?" asked Phil Angelides, the onetime California state treasurer who heads the commission created by Congress to investigate the causes of the economic meltdown. "All the time," replied Eric Kolchinsky, a former Moody's team managing director, without missing a beat.

Credit-rating companies played a key part in the financial crisis as the link between the investment banks that created mortgage-related securities and the investors who bought them. In the wake of the housing collapse, tens of thousands of once highly rated securities were deemed practically worthless, and investors — including many public pension funds whose assets were presumed to be fairly safe — lost billions of dollars.

The ratings industry, dominated by Moody's, S&P and Fitch, is now due for a fresh round of regulation like much of the rest of the financial world. Congress is in the process of reconciling its two massive overhaul bills as well as some late-addition amendments that could radically change how the raters do business. With that backdrop, the 10-member Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission spent a day questioning current and former Moody's employees as well as Warren Buffett, the company's largest shareholder. The goal: to drop partisan posturing and simply figure out what went wrong.

The testimony portrayed a tumultuous decade at the New York City–based ratings firm. Gary Witt, a former team managing director, talked about perpetually being understaffed, as investment banks increasingly banged at the company's door with mortgage securitizations they wanted rated. The deals, which quickly grew in complexity, varied markedly from the corporate and government bonds that Moody's built its business on. "I felt like I was being asked to be in charge of something very complicated and difficult, and I didn't have adequate resources to make sure I got the ratings right," Witt told the commission. Eventually he grew so frustrated at unrequited requests for more staff and the way financial innovation was outpacing any understanding of it that he left the company for a job in academia.

Kolchinsky, the other former team managing director, described an even bleaker environment — one in which bankers bullied analysts and withheld information from them. Exactly once, Kolchinsky testified, was he able to refuse to rate a security. In general, he said, "no" wasn't an answer, even if analysts were dubious about the quality of the information they had to form a rating, since saying no would mean giving up lucrative fees. Another witness, former senior vice president Mark Froeba, said in a written statement that there was a "palpable erosion of institutional support" for any action, like tougher rating standards, which might cause Moody's to lose business to a competitor.

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