Articles Posted in Standard and Poor’s

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).

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.

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.

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.

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,, October 22, 2008
Committee on Oversight and Government Reform
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