Articles Posted in Credit Ratings Agencies

Standard & Poor’s (“S&P”) has just downgraded the general obligation rating of Puerto Rico from a rating of B to a rating of CCC +. The ratings agency said the downgrade was because the market access prospects for the U.S. territory have weakened even further and Puerto Rico’s ability to fulfill its financial commitments is becoming more and more linked to the economic and business conditions in the Commonwealth, which are not strong.

The credit rater is also putting the general obligation rating on CreditWatch negative, which means the rating could go even lower into junk bond status and closer to a default. S&P lowered its ratings on the first-lien and second-lien sales tax bonds of the Puerto Rico Sales Tax Financing Corp. from B to CCC + as well. The bonds of the Puerto Rico Employees Retirement System and the Puerto Rico Municipal Finance Agency also received downgrades with a negative outlook.

S&P says that unless the conditions in Puerto Rico get better, the territory won’t be able to sustain its financial commitments. The ratings agency said there was not currently a consensus on key aspects of the 2016 budget and that this could make fiscal pressure and liquidity worse. In a letter from Puerto Rico’s Government Development Bank to its governor, there were concerns about liquidity problems unless the government starts tax reform and enacts a budget. S&P stated that if the budget is delayed or flawed there might be an even further ratings downgrades.

Even though Puerto Rico’s debt has been downgraded to “junk” status by the three major ratings agencies (Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s, and Fitch Ratings), OppenheimerFunds (OPY) has increased its holding of Puerto Rican debt in two of its municipal bond funds that carry lower risk. The credit raters downgraded the US Commonwealth over worries about its failing economy and decreased ability to finance its deficits in capital markets.

According to Reuters, Lipper Inc. says that at the end of last year, the Oppenheimer Rochester Short-Term Municipal Fund’s (ORSCX) exposure to Puerto Rico’s debt had risen 13% from a year ago, while its Intermediate-Term Municipal Fund more than doubled its exposure to 17%. (Details of the holdings in both funds since then are still unavailable.) Both have a 5% limit on how much junk-rated debt they can contain. However, because the US territory’s debt was downgraded after the buys were made, Oppenheimer, which is part of MassMutual Financial Group, may not obligated to unload the assets.

The company has continued to support Puerto Rico municipal bonds, even as a lot of other mutual fund firms have lowered their exposure to Puerto Rico debt. This week, Oppenheimer downplayed the investment risk involved, noting that most bonds involved are insured (Reuters reports that 27% of the holdings in the intermediate-fund and another 4% in the short-term fund, do not have insurance).

Previous articles have described the numerous problems that many investors currently face as a result of investments their broker at UBS or another brokerage firm made to invest in Puerto Rican municipal bonds. Other posts have discussed why UBS knew or should have known that those problems were imminent, and yet kept selling those bonds to virtually all of its clients. Those problems have even gotten worse, as Moody’s has followed suit from Standard & Poor’s and downgraded approximately $55 billion worth of Puerto Rico’s outstanding bonds, pushing many of those into junk bond status. The question becomes, now what? What options do investors have?

Broker-dealers, like UBS and UBS Puerto Rico, are regulated by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”). FINRA rules give customers of broker-dealers the option of filing complaints against their broker and his employing company in arbitration. Arbitration is a court alternative. It can be quicker and less expensive than a claim filed in a state or federal court; FINRA arbitration cases typically take between 12 to 18 months from when they are filed to when a decision is rendered by the arbitrators.

The proceedings are also much less invasive for the customer bringing the claim. Typically, customers are not required to respond to written questions under oath, submit to depositions, or in person questioning on the record, or other similar discovery procedures which occur in court litigation. Instead, the customers are generally only required to produce certain paper documents in their possession; things like statements from their broker, letters and/or emails between themselves and their broker, certain tax records, etc. The only other requirement is to attend a final, in person hearing, similar to a trial in court, where the customer will have the opportunity to explain their story before the arbitrators.

This week, Standard & Poor’s (“S&P”) cut the credit rating for Puerto Rico’s general obligation debt to junk-bond status due to concerns about an inability to access capital markets. S&P had put the US territory’s rating on notice for such a downgrade late last year. Now, the credit rating agency announced, it is officially issuing that downgrade to a “BB”-a level under investment grade.

The credit rating agency believes that the Caribbean island’s ability to sell additional debt in $3.7 trillion municipal bond market is limited and cash shortages could happen. Because of such “liquidity constraints,” S & P does not feel that an investment-grade rating is warranted. The agency also cut its rating on Puerto Rico’s Government Development Bank to a BB, as well.

Puerto Rico has been in peril of getting a ratings downgrade by all three US credit raters for some time now in part because of its $70 billion of tax-free debt. Responding to the junk status downgrade, Puerto Rico’s Treasury Secretary and Government Development Bank said that S & P’s decision was a disappointment but they remained “confident” that the US territory had enough liquidity to meet such needs through the fiscal year’s conclusion.

The losses that investors in Puerto Rico bonds and UBS Puerto Rico bond funds have suffered continue to mount, and the downgrade to high risk, or “junk bond” status is only going to make things worse. In 2013 alone, investors in Puerto Rican bonds saw losses of over 20%. However, those losses do not include the leverage that many investors were ultimately exposed to. Many investors were sold proprietary investments funds created by UBS. Those funds borrowed additional funds to be able to purchase even larger amounts of Puerto Rican bonds. This strategy increases the potential gains an investor can make, but also increases the potential losses. Investors in funds that were 50% leveraged, which many UBS funds were, saw losses closer to 40%.

This permitted these UBS funds to see losses of over $1.6 billion. Moreover, these losses do not take into account the losses of investors who were convinced to buy Puerto Rico bonds outside of these funds, or investors who lost additional money through extra leverage sold by their brokers.

Many investors were convinced to borrow more money, either through a margin account, a bank loan, or through a second mortgage, to make even larger investments, exponentially increasing their risk. These layers of borrowed money made it possible for some investors to see their entire accounts get wiped out.

One day after Moody’s Investor Service placed Puerto Rico’s general obligation bonds rating of Baa3 on review for downgrade to junk status, the credit rating agency affirmed the ratings it had earlier in the year given four banks: Banco Santander Puerto Rico, Popular Inc. and its subsidiaries, FirstBank Puerto Rico, and Doral Financial Corporation, as well as the ratings for senior bonds put out by Doral Financial and Banco Santander Puerto Rico through the Puerto Rico Industrial, Tourist, Educational, Medical and Environmental Control Facilities Financing Authority. The ratings outlook for First Bank, Popular, and Doral Financial stayed negative, as did Banco Santander Puerto Rico’s BFSR/BCA. (However, the outlook on that bank’s supported deposit and debt ratings are stable due to the bank’s affiliation with Santander Bank NA, which is a US affiliate.)

Puerto Rico, which is a major municipal bond issuer, has been close to or in recession for nearly a decade and has over $70 billion in debt. Moody’s said it is worried about the territory’s growing dependence on outside short-term debt, “weakening liquidity,” limited market access, and its poor economy. The credit rater believes that the fiscal and economic challenges that the territory continues to face will keep threatening the “health of the banking system.” Noting that the banks’ non-performing assets continue to remain negative relative to banks in the US mainland, the agency said that this could result in more losses if things don’t get better.

Unfortunately, many investors who got involved in Puerto Rico muni bonds were not apprised of the risks or could have never handled the high risks to begin with. Some investors have lost their retirement or life savings as a result.

The US Department of Justice and has filed civil fraud charges against Standard & Poor’s Ratings Service, contending that credit rating agency’s fraudulent ratings of mortgage bonds played a role in causing the economic crisis. Settlement talks with Justice Department reportedly broke down after the latter indicated that it wanted at least $1 billion. S & P was hoping to pay around $100 million. Also, there was disagreement between both sides as to whether or not the credit rater could agree to settle without having to admit to any wrongdoing.

The securities case against S & P involves over 30 collateralized debt obligations, which were created in 2007 when the housing market was at its height. The government believes that between September 2004 and October 2007 the credit rater disregarded the risks that came along with the investments, giving them too high ratings in the interest of profit and gaining market share. The ratings agency allegedly wanted the large financial firms and others to select it to rate financial instruments. Meantime, S & P continued to tout its ratings as objective, misleading investors as a result. S & P would go on to make record profits, and the complex home loan bundles eventually failed.

Although there have been questions for some time now about the credit ratings agencies’ role in creating a housing bubble, this is the first securities lawsuit brought by the government against one of these firms over the financial crisis. It was in 2010 that a Senate probe revealed that from 2004 to 2007 S & P and Moody’s Investors Service (MC) both applied rating models that were inaccurate, which caused them to fail to predict exactly how well the risky mortgages would do. The lawmakers believed that the credit rating agencies let competition between each other affect how well they did their jobs.

This month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit refused to revive statutory and common law MBS claims made by five Ohio pension funds: The Ohio Police & Fire Pension Fund, the State Teachers Retirement System of Ohio, the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System, the Ohio Public Employees Deferred Compensation Program, and the School Employees Retirement Systems of Ohio. All of them are run by the state for public employees.

Per the court’s opinion, between 2005 and 2008, the funds had invested hundreds of million of dollars in 308 mortgage-backed securities that all were given AAA or the equivalent from one of the three credit rating agencies. When MBS value dropped during this time, the Funds lost about $457 million.

The plaintiffs believe that the reason that they lost their money is because the ratings that were given to the MBS were false and misleading. They filed their Ohio securities lawsuit under the state’s “blue sky ” laws, as well as the common law theory of negligent misrepresentation.

Former Sentinel Management Group Inc. CEO Eric Bloom and head trader Charles Mosley have been indicted for allegedly defrauding investors of about $500 million prior to the firm’s filing for bankruptcy protection in 2007. The government is seeking forfeiture of approximately that amount.

The two men are accused of fraudulently getting and retaining “under management” this money by misleading clients about where their money was going, the investments’ value, and the associated risks involved. According to prosecutors, defendants allegedly used investors’ securities as collateral to get a loan from Bank of New York Mellon Corp. (BK), in part to buy risky, illiquid securities. Bloom is also accused of causing clients to believe that Sentinel’s financial problems were not a result of these risky purchases, the indebtedness to the BoNY credit line, and too much use of leverage.

In other securities law news, Egan-Jones Rating Co. wants the Securities and Exchange Commission’s attempts to pursue claims against it in an administrative forum instead of in federal court blocked. The credit rating agency, which has long believed that the SEC does not treat it fairly even as it “historically coddled and excused” the larger credit raters, contends that if it were forced to make its defense in an administrative hearing it would not be able to avail of its constitutional due process rights due to the SEC’s bias.The Commission’s administrative claims accuse Egan Jones and its president Sean Egan of allegedly making “material misrepresentations” in its 2008 registration application to become a nationally registered statistical rating agency for government and asset-backed and securities issuers.

Egan-Jones filed a complaint accusing the SEC of “institutional bias,” as well as of allegedly improper conduct when examining and investigating the small credit ratings agency (including having Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations staff go “back and forth between divisions and duties” to engage in both examination and enforcement roles.)The credit rater is also accusing the Commission of improperly seeking civil penalties against it under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, even though the actions it allegedly committed happened way before Dodd-Frank was enacted.

One firm that has agreed to settle the SEC’s administrative action against it is OppenheimerFunds Inc. Without denying or admitting to the allegations, the investment management company will pay over $35 million over allegations that it and its sales and distribution arm, OppenheimerFunds Distributor Inc., made misleading statements about the Oppenheimer Champion Income Fund (OPCHX, OCHBX, OCHCX, OCHNX, OCHYX) and Oppenheimer Core Bond Fund (OPIGX) in 2008.

The SEC contends that Oppenheimer used “total return swaps” derivatives, which created significant exposure to commercial mortgage-backed securities in the two funds, but allegedly did not adequately disclose in its prospectus the year that the Champion fund took on significant leverage through these derivative instruments. OppenheimerFunds also is accused of putting out misleading statements about the financial losses and recovery prospects of the fund when the CMBS market started to collapse, allegedly resulting in significant cash liabilities on total return swap contracts involving both funds. The $35 million will go into a fund to payback investors.

Meantime, Nasdaq Stock Market and Nasdaq OMX Group are proposing a $40M “voluntary accommodation” fund that would be used to payback members that were hurt because of technical problems that occurred during Facebook Inc.’s (FB) IPO offering last month. Nasdaq would pay about $13.7 million in cash to these members, while the balance would be a credit to them for trading expenses.

A technical snafu had stalled the social networking company’s market entry by about 30 minutes, which then delayed order confirmations on May 18, which is the day that Facebook went public. Many investors contend that they lost money as a result of Nasdaq’s alleged mishandling of their purchases, sales, or cancellation orders for the Facebook stock. Some of them have already filed securities lawsuits.

Sentinel Management Chief, Head Trader Indicted in Illinois
, Bloomberg/Businessweek, June 1, 2012
Investors sue Nasdaq, Facebook over IPO, Reuters, May 22, 2012

Credit Rater Egan-Jones, Alleging Bias, Sues To Force SEC Proceeding Into Federal Court, BNA Securities Law Daily, June 8, 2012

OppenheimerFunds to pay $35M to settle SEC charge, Boston.com, June 6, 2012 Continue reading

Ilya Eric Kolchinsky, a former Moody’s Investors Service executive, is suing the credit ratings agency for defamation. This is one of the first lawsuits involving a Wall Street company and an ex-employer that blew the whistle on it. Kolchinsky is seeking $15 million in damages in addition to legal fees.

Kolchinsky claims that Moody’s tried to ruin his reputation after he publicly talked about problems with its ratings model. Kolchinsky, who supervised the ratings that were given to subprime mortgage collateralized debt obligations (many of these did not live up to their triple-A ratings), testified before Congressional panels about his concerns. He addressed the potential conflicts that can arise as a result of the issuer-pay ratings model, which lets banks and borrowers that sell debt securities pay for ratings. He alleged securities fraud and claimed that the ratings agency placed profits ahead of doing their job. He also claimed that Moody’s lacked the resources to enforce its rules.

Kolchinsky contends that Moody’s began attacking him through the media and that the statements that the credit ratings firm issued have caused him to become “blacklisted by the private sector financial industry.” Moody’s suspended him last year. In his civil suit, Kolchinsky notes that he was attacked by the credit ratings agency even though it went on to adopt some of his recommendations.

The recently passed financial reform bill provides greater protections for whistleblowers while offering financial rewards for those brave enough to tell regulators about their concerns. However, it is unclear whether Kolchinsky’s complaint will benefit from the new law because his case involves alleged actions that occurred prior to the bill’s passing.

Related Web Resources:
Former Moody’s Executive Files Suit, New York Times, September 13, 2010
Exec who blew whistle on Moody’s ratings sues for defamation, Central Valley Business TImes, September 14, 2010
Wall Street Whistleblowers May Be Eligible to Collect 10 – 30% of Money that the Government Recovers, Stockbroker Fraud Blog, July 29, 2010 Continue reading

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