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Approach to Bond Rating Under Scrutiny

By Stephen Barlas
November 1, 2021

Lawmakers in the United States are pushing to revamp the bond and credit rating industry and its “issuer pay” model. The U.S. House Financial Services Subcommittee on Investor Protection, Entrepreneurship, and Capital Markets held a hearing in July 2021 to examine the nationally recognized statistical rating organizations (NRSROs).

 

Chairman of the subcommittee, Rep. Brad Sherman (D.-Calif.), raised the issue of “unchecked conflicts of interest,” referring to a suspicion that when companies pay a rating agency to rate a corporate bond, the agency is pressured to give the bond a more favorable rating, fearing loss of business.

 

Sherman is sponsoring the Commercial Credit Rating Reform Act that would require the establishment of a credit rating agency assignment board within the jurisdiction of the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC). The board would be responsible for assigning the NRSROs to provide ratings for corporate issuers and issuers of new asset-backed securities. Currently, there are nine rating agencies registered with the SEC as NRSROs. As of December 31, 2019, 95.1% of all credit ratings outstanding were published by the three largest NRSROs: S&P Global Ratings, Moody’s Investors Service, and Fitch Ratings.

 

Not only is there support for eliminating the “issuer pay” model and diversifying the credit rating industry, but additional corporate disclosure could also be in the cards. The SEC’s Fixed Income Market Structure Advisory Committee (FIMSAC) made a number of recommendations in June 2020, which included requiring companies to make new disclosures regarding their choice of credit rating agencies. One recommendation stated, “We encourage the SEC to partner with appropriate trade groups to develop a set of best practices for choosing NRSROs and, once established, to require corporate issuers to disclose if/why they deviated from them in their annual reports.”

 

Amy McGarrity, chief investment officer of the Colorado Public Employees’ Retirement Association, agrees that a “conflict of interest lies at the heart of the discussion of improving credit rating quality.” McGarrity chaired the credit ratings subcommittee of the FIMSAC, which suggested the SEC should oversee a random assignment process for both structured products and corporate bond ratings, with at least two NRSROs being assigned to each issue, to provide diversity of views.

 

But some advocacy groups don’t support the proposed reforms. Michael Bright, CEO of the Structured Finance Association, said, “Over the long-term, our members are concerned a government-controlled assignment system will perversely reduce the incentive to compete on the quality of ratings.”

 

Stephen Barlas has covered Washington, D.C., for trade and professional magazines since 1981 and since 1984 for Strategic Finance and its predecessor Management Accounting. You can reach him at sbarlas@verizon.net.
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