Standard & Poor’s said it may downgrade 1,196 securities tied to U.S. residential mortgages after it “incorrectly analyzed” the bonds because of the way interest payments on the debt are structured.
The securities were created mostly this year in 129 transactions called re-remics, which are formed by repackaging existing bonds backed by home loans, New York-based S&P said today in a statement.
“An admission of guilt by a rating agency: How refreshing, and also what a wonderful Christmas-time present,” said Sylvain Raynes, a principal at R&R Consulting in New York and co-author of “Elements of Structured Finance,” published in May by Oxford University Press. “What I want to know is, is anyone going to get fired over this?”
More than $85 billion of re-remics have been issued since the start of last year, as bondholders and Wall Street firms transformed downgraded home-loan securities into new debt, some of which receives top grades from rating companies, according to a Dec. 7 report by Austin, Texas-based Amherst Securities Group.
Bank of America Corp., based in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Bank of New York Mellon Corp. are among financial companies that turned to re-remics in the past two years as they restructured mortgage-bond holdings to lower the amount of capital they needed or to make it easier to sell the investments.
“Our written statements are what we are providing,” Ed Sweeney, a spokesman for S&P, said in an e-mail. He declined to comment further and didn’t answer an e-mailed question about the principal balances of the securities under review.
More than $30 billion of the bonds, many of which received ratings only from S&P, may be affected, according to Scott Buchta, head of investment strategy at New York-based broker Braver Stern Securities.
“That could have some big implications for the holders of these bonds, depending on how much the new ratings get changed,” he said in an e-mail.
In re-remics, typically senior-ranked mortgage securities or a series of the bonds get split into new debt, some of which becomes safer because it ranks higher than the rest. The process mirrors the original securitization of the loans.
When S&P initially assessed the likelihood that the re-remics now under review would fail to pay scheduled interest, it “did not incorporate an analysis” of the effects of some of the securities paying interest to multiple classes in equal amounts, instead of sequentially in order of seniority, according to two statements by the ratings company.
“Previously, we incorrectly analyzed the timely interest payments,” S&P analysts Jeremy Schneider and Becky Cao said in one of the statements. S&P is a unit of McGraw-Hill Cos.
Financial-overhaul legislation passed in July directed regulators to seek ways to eliminate their use of ratings after lawmakers and investors, including public pension funds, accused S&P and Moody’s Investors Service of fueling the financial crisis by giving top rankings to mortgage bonds to win revenue.
State insurance overseers had already moved to suspend their use of credit ratings on residential- and commercial-mortgage securities in assessing the capital needs of companies they regulate. They now rely instead on reviews by money managers Pacific Investment Management Co. and BlackRock Inc. The new protocol reduced the capital needs of insurers because credit ratings are often based on the probability of defaults, rather than the size of expected losses.
S&P and Moody’s, which both reported record profits from 2004 through 2008, “failed to assign sufficient resources to adequately rate new products and test the accuracy of existing ratings,” according to the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
About 96 percent of subprime-mortgage securities that were granted top ratings when issued in 2007 now have fallen below investment grade, according to Amherst.
S&P rated the second-most re-remics issued in the first half of this year, after DBRS Inc., according to industry newsletter Asset-Backed Alert. Assessments of the debt by Fitch Ratings, last year’s top grader, dried up after that firm toughened its standards.
About two-thirds of the classes that S&P placed under review were from this year and one-quarter were issued last year, according to its statement.
Today’s announcement by S&P follows a September statement in which the firm said it had to lower ratings on 224 securities and upgrade 17 bonds after “the correction of a system error that had caused the loan group mapping for these transactions to be incorrectly displayed in our surveillance systems.”
Mortgage-bond trustees occasionally make a similar mistake when sending out payments to investors as S&P said today it did in grading debt, meaning investors need to carefully monitor their holdings, according to Raynes, a former Moody’s analyst whose current firm advises bondholders.
“What that rating firm isn’t saying is they usually incorrectly analyze every deal,” he said.
S&P President Deven Sharma said in June that the company’s assessment of credit proved as accurate during the financial crisis as during other periods of turmoil, with the exception of its views on mortgage securities.