Articles Posted in Moody’s

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

UBS AG must post a $35.6 million bond, says Superior Court Judge John Blawie. Blawie says that hedge fund Pursuit Partners, LLC has sufficient evidence to pursue its securities fraud case claiming that the investment bank knew it was selling collateralized debt obligations that were toxic to institutional investors but did nothing to inform clients about the risks.

Blawie cited an e-mail written by a UBS employee that called the asset-backed securities “vomit.” Another e-mail noted that UBS was selling Pursuit CDOs that were “crap.”

The judge is letting the securities fraud complaint go forward without ruling on the case’s merits. Between July and October 2007, UBS sold the hedge fund CDOs valued at $40.5 million. Following the global credit crisis, there has been $1.7 trillion in losses and writedowns.

A US District Court judge says Moody’s Corp. investors can go ahead in part with a lawsuit accusing the credit rating agency of securities fraud. The class action lawsuit accuses Moody’s of claiming it was an independent body that impartially published accurate financial instrument ratings when such misrepresentations artificially inflated its stock price (until media reports about its compromised objectivity caused the value of its stocks to drop).

In the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, Judge Shirley Wohl Kram said the plaintiffs sufficiently alleged that the credit rating agency’s statements over its independence were false. She did find deficiencies with other pleadings, however, including a failure to properly plead scienter against Michael Kanef, the group managing director of Moody’s US asset finance group, and Brian Clarkson, Moody’s chief operating officer. The court also approved the plaintiffs’ request that they be allowed to cure the pleading deficiencies.

The court also said that it did not consider Moody’s statements about its independence to be inactionable puffery. Moody had declared independence and made a list of verifiable actions it executed to make sure it continued to stay independent. However, other specifics, the court said, were not actionable, including statements about the meaning of structured finance securities or that its structured finance revenues came from legitimate business practices.

The court said that the plaintiffs’ class action case survives the defendants’ motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

Credit Rating Agencies
It is the job of credit rating agencies to help manage financial market risk. CRA’s are responsible for publishing creditworthiness evaluations about their clients. These evaluations not only help in the assessment of credit risk but they are important for regulation.

Related Web Resources:
Moody’s Must Defend Investor Suit Over Independence, Bloomberg.com, February 23, 2009
Shareholder lawsuit vs Moody’s allowed to proceed, CNBC.com, February 23, 2009
Moody’s
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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.

Related Web Resources:
Read the Complaint

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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