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Bernanke Warned of Risks From Flawed Credit Ratings

Bernanke Revealed Market Sham in Lost Ratings Confidence Warning
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke. Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Senior Federal Reserve officials including Chairman Ben S. Bernanke warned in August 2007 that investor confidence in credit rating companies was fading, risking greater instability in financial markets.

“There is an information fog” that “is very much associated with the loss of confidence in the credit-rating agencies,” Bernanke said at a meeting on Aug. 7, 2007. The firms’ “credibility has been shot” and “it is much harder to see that this market will unwind itself in a rather kind and comforting environment,” said Kevin Warsh, then a Fed governor.

The 2007 transcripts of the Federal Open Market Committee, released last month, open a window onto how Fed officials viewed ratings companies during the end of the period that is the focus of a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit against McGraw-Hill Cos. and its Standard & Poor’s unit.

The Justice Department filed a civil complaint Feb. 4 in Los Angeles accusing McGraw-Hill and S&P of three types of fraud, the first federal case against a ratings company for grades related to the credit crisis. The U.S. is seeking as much as $5 billion in penalties in punishment for inflated credit ratings that Attorney General Eric Holder said were central to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

Punish Conduct

The “egregious” conduct “goes to the very heart of the recent financial crisis,” Holder said yesterday at a news conference in Washington. The complaint “is an important step forward in our ongoing efforts to investigate and punish the conduct that is believed to have contributed to the worst economic crisis in recent history.”

In June 2007, William C. Dudley, then the head of the markets desk of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, warned of the risk to broader financial markets from flawed credit ratings. That April, New Century Financial Corp., once the second-largest U.S. subprime mortgage lender, had filed for bankruptcy.

“High credit ratings don’t fully capture measures of risk,” Dudley said during the FOMC’s June 27-28, 2007 meeting.

“The ratings are based on the risk of default, not the market risks associated with illiquidity,” said Dudley, who became president of the New York Fed in January 2009. The flawed ratings may veil “significant market risk” posed by “highly leveraged portfolios of highly rated but illiquid assets.”

Steady Deterioration

Bernanke and his FOMC colleagues met on Aug. 7, 2007, after a steady deterioration in financial market stability. The prior month Bear Stearns Cos. liquidated two hedge funds that invested in mortgage securities. American Home Mortgage Investment Corp. filed for bankruptcy on Aug. 6 and BNP Paribas Investment Partners temporarily suspended net asset value calculations for some funds on Aug. 9 because of disruptions in asset-backed securities markets.

At the Aug. 7 meeting Dudley said “disturbing delinquency trajectories” had prompted ratings agencies to downgrade a significant number of assets and that losses had “led to a fundamental reevaluation of what a credit rating means and how much comfort an investor should take from a high credit rating.”

Dudley’s remarks sparked an FOMC discussion on the risk to the economy from declining confidence in ratings companies.

“With the rating agencies discredited and markets vulnerable to adverse news on the economy, the period of unusual uncertainty could be prolonged,” said Donald Kohn, the Fed’s vice chairman from 2006 to 2010.

Downplayed Risks

S&P issued credit ratings on more than $2.8 trillion of residential mortgage-backed securities and about $1.2 trillion of CDOs from September 2004 through October 2007, according to the Justice Department complaint. S&P downplayed the risks on portions of the securities to gain more business from the investment banks that issued them, the U.S. said.

S&P has denied wrongdoing. McGraw-Hill shares fell 0.7 percent to $44.61 in New York today after plunging 14 percent on Feb. 4 and 11 percent yesterday.

Officials including Bernanke and then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson also failed to predict the severity of the crisis, Floyd Abrams, an attorney representing S&P, said yesterday in an interview with Bloomberg Television’s Sara Eisen.

S&P -- like investors, government officials and “every member of the Fed -- had views in 2007 about how bad the housing market collapse would be, which did not pan out,” said Abrams, a partner at Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP in New York. “It was a lot worse than S&P predicted it would be, and a lot worse than everyone else predicted it would be.”

‘Right Answers’

“There wasn’t any fraud” because S&P employees “tried their best to come out with the right answers about what would happen,” Abrams said. “All the folks at the Fed back in 2007 and Chairman Bernanke and Secretary Paulson -- everyone, just about all these entities, were pretty much in the same ballpark.”

Bernanke testified to Congress in March of 2007 that “problems in the subprime market” were “likely to be contained.”

Yet in August 2007 the Fed cut the discount rate that it charges banks on emergency loans, and in September of that year the central bank began a series of cuts to its target Fed funds rate that ended with the rate near zero by December 2008.

Timothy F. Geithner, then New York Fed president, said at the meeting on Aug. 7, 2007, “You are also seeing a collapse in confidence, as Bill described it, in how to value complex structured credit products, probably from the loss of faith in ratings and from the changes ahead in ratings methodology and in actual ratings.”

No Comment

Geithner was U.S Treasury Secretary from January 2009 until last month. Jenni Lecompte, his spokeswoman, said in an e-mail that Geithner declined to comment.

New York Fed spokesman Jack Gutt said Dudley had no comment on credit ratings, while Michele Davis, a spokeswoman for Paulson at Brunswick Group LLP, a communications consulting firm in Washington, said in an e-mail he wasn’t available to comment.

Warsh, now a lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business in California, said in an e-mail today that he was unavailable to comment.

“It looked to me that the Fed was questioning the credibility of the agencies more than the markets were at that time,” said Alan Blinder, an economics professor at Princeton University and Fed Vice Chairman from 1994 until 1996. “People were still paying close attention to these ratings -- the bubble hadn’t burst.”

At the August 2007 meeting, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart voiced concern from an unidentified “market observer” that markets for a range of structured securities were vulnerable to “contagion caused by the damaged credibility of rating agencies.”

At the end of their August meeting the FOMC voted to leave policy unchanged, saying “although the downside risks to growth have increased somewhat, the Committee’s predominant policy concern remains the risk that inflation will fail to moderate as expected.”

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