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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).

House Financial Services subcommittee chair Paul Kanjorski introduced a new draft bill that proposes making credit ratings agencies collectively liable for inaccuracies. The agencies received a lot of heat when they failed to properly warn investors about the risks associated with subprime mortgage securities before the market fell.

One problem with the current system is that the firms issuing the securities are the ones paying the credit ratings agencies for rating the securities. Kanjorski’s draft bill lets investors pursue lawsuits against credit rating agencies that recklessly or intentionally did not examine key data to determine the ratings. He says that collective liability could compel the ratings agencies to provide reliable, quality ratings while providing the proper incentive for them to monitor each other.

Critics of the plan, including Republicans and industry executives, warned that collective liability could result in a slew of expensive complaints while decreasing competition even more in an industry that Fitch Ratings, Moody’s Investors Services, and Standard and Poor’s already dominate.

The Boilermaker-Blacksmith National Pension Trust is suing a number of investment banks, credit rating agencies, and underwriters, including Wells Fargo, WFASC, Morgan Stanley & Co., Credit Suisse Securities (USA) LLC, Barclays Capital Inc., Bear Stearns & Co., Countrywide Securities Corp., Deutsche Bank Securities Inc., JPMorgan Chase Inc., Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Global Markets Inc., McGraw-Hill Cos., Moody’s Investor Services Inc., and Fitch Ratings Inc., over allegations that they made false statements in the prospectus and registration statement for certificates that were collateralized by Wells Fargo Bank, NA. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of thousands of investors that bought the certificates from Wells Fargo Asset Securities Corp., accuses the defendants of violating the 1933 Securities Act by engaging in these alleged actions.

According to the securities fraud lawsuit, the defendants concealed from investors that Wells Fargo revised its underwriting practices in 2005 and became involved in high risk subprime mortgage lending. The complaint contends that WFASC and a number of defendants submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commision prospectus and registration statements representing that the mortgages were backed by certificates that were subject to specific underwriting guidelines for evaluating a borrower’s creditworthiness. The plaintiffs contend that these prospectuses and registration statements were false because they neglected to reveal that the Wells Fargo-originated certificates were not in accordance with the credit, underwriting, and appraisal standards that Wells Fargo, per the companies, had supposedly used to approve mortgages.

The lawsuit also claims that because Wells Fargo decided to enter the subprime mortgage mortgage market in 2005, the investment bank had to take significant write-downs in 2008 because of its massive exposure to the subprime market and the WFASC certificates that these mortgages backed dropped significantly in value. The Boiler-Blaksmith fund reports that it lost about $5 million, which is more than half of what it invested.

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The Boilermakers National Funds
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At a hearing presided over by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in Washington DC, the executives of Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s, and Fitch Ratings, the three top credit rating agencies in the country, were grilled about how their assignment of high ratings to mortgage-backed securities, while drastically underestimating their risks, contributed to the current financial crisis.

While the heads of the country’s three leading credit agencies-Standard and Poor’s Deven Sherman, Fitch Ratings’s Stephen W. Joynt, and Moody’s Raymond W. McDaniel-have called the mortgage-backed securities collapse “unprecedented” and “unanticipated and said that any errors the agencies’ made were unintentional, internal documents reveal that the credit rating agencies knew that the ratings they were giving the securities were overvalued. It wasn’t until this past year, when homeowners began defaulting on subprime mortgages, that the credit ratings agencies began downgrading thousands of the securities.

Lawmakers are trying to determine whether the firms’ business model contributed to the conflicts of interests. Issuers pay the credit ratings agencies for evaluating securities. While the credit ratings agencies were giving mortgage-backed securities high ratings, the heads of the three leading credit agencies were earning $80 million in compensation.

At the hearing, former Moody’s credit policy managing director Jerome S. Fons testified that the agencies’ business model prevents analysts from placing investor interests before the firms’ interests. In one confidential document obtained by investigators, Moody’s CEO McDaniels is quoted as saying that bankers, investors and creditors regularly “pitched” the credit ratings agency. According to Frank L. Raiter, the former head of residential mortgage-backed securities ratings at Standard and Poor’s, “Profits were running the show.”

Investors depend on the credit rating agencies for independent evaluations. According to Congressman Waxman, the ratings agencies “broke this bond of trust,” while federal regulators failed to heed the red flags and protect investors.

Related Web Resources:

Credit Rating Agency Heads Grilled by Lawmakers, New York Times, October 22, 2008
Oversight Committee Hearing on Credit Rating Agencies and the Financial Crisis, Polfeeds.com, October 22, 2008
Committee on Oversight and Government Reform
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