What's (Still) Wrong with Credit Ratings

67 Pages Posted: 16 May 2017 Last revised: 5 Oct 2017

See all articles by Frank Partnoy

Frank Partnoy

University of California, Berkeley - School of Law

Date Written: 2017


Scholars and regulators generally agree that credit rating agency failures were at the center of the recent financial crisis. Congress responded to these failures with reforms in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act. This article demonstrates that those reforms have failed. Instead, regulators have thwarted Congress’s intent at every turn. As a result, the major credit rating agencies continue to be hugely profitable, yet generate little or no informational value. The fundamental problems that led to the financial crisis – overreliance on credit ratings, a lack of oversight and accountability, and primitive methodologies – remain as significant as they were before the financial crisis. This article addresses each of these problems and proposes several solutions.

First, although Congress attempted to remove credit rating agency “regulatory licenses,” the references to ratings in various statutes and rules, regulatory reliance on ratings remains pervasive. I show that regulated institutions continue to rely mechanistically on ratings, and I demonstrate that regulations continue to reference ratings, notwithstanding the Congressional mandate to remove references. I suggest several paths to reduce reliance.

Second, although Congress authorized new oversight measures, including an Office of Credit Ratings, that oversight has been ineffective. Annual investigations have uncovered numerous failures, many in the same mortgage-related areas that precipitated the financial crisis, but regulators have imposed minimal discipline on violators. Moreover, because regulators refuse to identify particular rating agencies in OCR reports, wrongdoers do not suffer reputational costs. I propose reforms to the OCR that would enhance its independence and sharpen the impact of its investigations.

Third, although Congress authorized new accountability measures, particularly removing rating agencies’ exemptions from Section 11 liability and Regulation FD, the Securities and Exchange Commission has gutted both of those provisions. The SEC performed an end-run around Dodd-Frank’s explicit requirements, reversing the express will of Congress. Litigation has not been effective as an accountability measure, either, in part because rating agencies continue to assert the dubious argument that ratings are protected speech. I argue that the SEC should reverse course and implement Congress’s intent, including encouraging private litigation.

Finally, given the ongoing problems in these three areas, it is no surprise that credit rating agency methodologies remain unreliable. I conclude by illustrating the weakness of current methodologies for corporate bonds, with a particular focus on the treatment of diversification and investment holding companies. I argue that neither regulators nor investors should rely on such crude and uninformative methodologies.

This article’s overarching recommendation is straightforward: both regulators and investors should reduce reliance on credit ratings, and regulators should implement Congress’s will with respect to rating agency oversight and accountability. Credit rating agencies are a cautionary example of regulatory stickiness: reliance on ratings has proven difficult to undo. More generally, the stickiness of regulatory licenses is a warning for policymakers who are considering deferring to private entities for regulatory purposes in other areas.

Keywords: credit ratings, credit rating agency, Dodd-Frank Act, regulatory licenses, Office of Credit Ratings, Regulation Fair Disclosure, Regulation FD

JEL Classification: A00, A10, K10, K22

Suggested Citation

Partnoy, Frank, What's (Still) Wrong with Credit Ratings (2017). Washington Law Review, Forthcoming, San Diego Legal Studies Paper No. 17-285, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2969086 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2969086

Frank Partnoy (Contact Author)

University of California, Berkeley - School of Law ( email )

215 Law Building
Berkeley, CA 94720-7200
United States

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