March 4, 2021

House Panel Plans to Question Rating Agencies Over Downgrade Threat to U.S.

A House Financial Services oversight panel on Wednesday will give lawmakers their first chance to ask senior executives at Standard Poor’s and Moody’s about their judgments in putting the government on notice that its top-flight credit rating is at risk.

The hearing had been called to discuss the impact of new financial regulations on the major rating agencies. But as the possibility of a credit downgrade becomes increasingly likely, representatives from both political parties are expected to take a closer look at the record of those issuing the reviews of United States government debt.

Representative Randy Neugebauer, a Texas Republican who leads the Financial Services Oversight Subcommittee, said he believed the agencies were acting properly to raise questions about the nation’s debt problem. Still, he added, the financial crisis showed that the rating agencies did not always get it right.

“A lot of folks feel the agencies failed,” he said. “Their credibility is somewhat in question.”

Representative Barney Frank, the ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee, who is a Massachusetts Democrat, said he believed the rating agencies had made flawed assessments on ratings of state and municipal debt over the years. Now, he said, he thinks they may be misjudging Congress’s political will to rein in the deficit.

“I don’t think that in judging how the political system is going to respond, going forward, that they have any credibility,” he said. “They are terrible at that.”

Wednesday’s hearing will be the latest act in a week of political drama over an agreement to raise the debt ceiling and lower the federal deficit. Even as Democrat and Republicans work on competing plans to get the nation’s financial house in order, the judgments of the major credit rating agencies hang over any deal. Moody’s, Standard Poor’s and Fitch Ratings have all warned that they might lower the American credit rating. S. P. has gone a step further, suggesting that the uncertain political climate could lead it to take action by mid-October even with an agreement to cut the deficit.

S. P. has indicated that the Obama administration and the Congress will need a “credible plan” to cut the deficit by $4 trillion to keep its top rating.

Few believe that such a plan is now possible. Critics of the rating agencies charge that they are inserting themselves in a highly charged political debate.

“For them to weigh in with such specificity of what needs to happen seems to be outside their mission and charter,” said Joshua Rosner, a managing director at Graham Fisher Company, a research firm. “It feels much more like a rating agency consulting business than a ratings business.”

Ratings can be useful in helping investors evaluate the performance of complex and lightly traded securities. But, ever since the financial crisis, the ratings agencies’ own track record has come under attack.

After the mortgage collapse, critics charged that the agencies gave sterling ratings to complex securities based on absurdly optimistic models, only to later watch them falter. They also pointed to the agencies’ unusual compensation structure, in which issuers pay for the ratings of corporate bonds. Critics likened that arrangement to a food critic who is paid by the restaurants he reviews. A Congressional panel examining the causes of the crisis called the ratings agencies “essential cogs in the wheel of financial destruction.”

The agencies’ record on sovereign ratings has been better, but European politicians found them to be useful whipping boys.

Now, Washington is registering its complaints. Within the Obama administration, officials are frustrated with what they see as the rating agencies — especially S. P. — moving the financial goalposts. Last October, an S. P. commentary suggested that the American government would have three to five years to get its fiscal house in order. By April, when the ratings agency changed its credit outlook on the United States to negative, it suggested that the government needed a plan in place by 2013.

Then, on July 14, S. P. warned that if the government did not agree to a deficit reduction package of about $4 trillion, it could be downgraded in the next 90 days.

The agency said on Tuesday that the changing timetables reflected the belief that if lawmakers in Washington could not reach a deal now, they were unlikely to do so in the future. 

“What’s changed is the political gridlock,” said David Beers, its global head of sovereign ratings, in an e-mail. “Even now, it’s an open question as to whether or when Congress and the administration can agree on fiscal measures that will stabilize the upward trajectory of the U.S. government debt burden.”

A spokesman for the rating agency added that it would refrain from commenting on the “many varying proposals” that had arisen in the current debate.

Meanwhile, there is the topic that the hearing was originally called to address. As part of the Dodd-Frank Act, lawmakers pushed for new rules that stopped requiring the use of ratings, forcing investors to do their own analysis instead. But banks and their regulators have fiercely resisted the rules, saying that putting that rule into effect is difficult.

On Monday, for example, the Federal Reserve identified 46 instances in its bank regulation that required investors to rely on credit ratings, but it did not map out how it would adapt those rules so that ratings were no longer necessary. The Securities and Exchange Commission also proposed Tuesday that mortgage bond and other issuers make certain certifications in an effort to reduce investors’ reliance on ratings.

Lawmakers said they planned to question ratings agency officials, financial regulators and other experts on efforts to de-emphasize the importance of credit ratings in the year since the Dodd-Frank rules were passed.

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