2009-03-17nytimes.com

Why, more than a year into the crisis, do regulators and investors continue to rely on ratings? No one has been more wrong than Moody’s and S.&P. Less than a year ago both gave high ratings to 11 of the largest distressed financial institutions. They put the insurance giant A.I.G. in the AA category. They rated Lehman Brothers an A just a month before it collapsed. Until recently, the agencies maintained AAA ratings on thousands of nearly worthless subprime-related securities.

The reason for this continued reliance on ratings is simple: bad regulation...

The only way out of the trap is to reduce reliance on ratings. First, regulators should undo the regulation web they began creating during the 1930s. The Securities and Exchange Commission has called for eliminating reliance on ratings, but that proposal has stalled in the face of intense lobbying.

For their part, investors should stop putting ratings-related language into financial contracts. The terms of credit default swaps and other derivatives should be free of ratings-based triggers. Banking supervisors should insist that loan contracts not refer to ratings. Fund sponsors, pension plan administrators and insurance regulators should remove ratings-based criteria.

The financial markets can function without letter ratings. Instead of relying on arbitrary letters, regulators and investors should consider all of the information available about an investment, including market prices.

Finally, regulators and investors should return to the tool they used to assess credit risk before they began delegating responsibility to the credit rating agencies. That tool is called judgment.


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