Special Report from Money Morning
by Shah Gilani, Money Morning
Sometimes it’s all about time. Things take time. Time catches up to things.
In the case of the many crimes and misdemeanors that led up to the credit crisis, time seems to be finally catching up with some crooked institutions.
As for the real crooks, as in the individuals who lied, cheated, stole, and directed others to lie, cheat, steal, and more for their share of the almighty bonus pool… not so much.
But sometimes, you take what you can get.
This time it’s a rating agency’s turn… It’s not enough. But today I’m going to share this bit of good news.
Rated G… for Garbage
In February 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice slapped Standard & Poor’s with a $5 billion civil suit. Apparently, for fraud, filing criminal suits is not civilized, at least not if you want to keep getting political donations.
S&P and its parent, McGraw Hill Financial Inc. (NYSE: MHFI), pooh-poohed the 119-page suit – of course. They called it “meritless” and vowed to defend themselves “vigorously.”
The lawsuit charges S&P with egregiously rating residential mortgage-backed securities and related structured products it knew were garbage as USDA Choice or AAA Yummy Good. And believe it or not, a lot of people bought it.
S&P is only the largest rating agency in the world. It only rated some $2.8 trillion worth of residential mortgage-backed security (RMBS) junk and $1.2 trillion worth of structured dreck during the run-up. And then it subsequently downgraded all that supposed Prime Cut to “Oops, it’s stinky rotten. How were we supposed to know things would change?”
So, at least the economy and the American people weren’t affected. Because what’s a few trillion dollars of rot in an otherwise healthy buffet of Wall Street entrées?
Some serious stuff, as in smoking-gun internal emails at S&P, has surfaced. According to a Reuters article that came out after the suit was filed,
“By July 5, 2007, as the credit crisis began taking hold, a new S&P structured finance analyst told an investment banking client: ‘The fact is, there was a lot of internal pressure in S&P to downgrade lots of deals earlier on before this thing started blowing up. But the leadership was concerned of p*ssing off too many clients and jumping the gun ahead of Fitch and Moody’s.’”
Of course, there is a lot more. In due course, we may get to see some of the more enlightening emails. I’ve seen some, and they are funny – while at the same time sickening.
So, with all the time that’s passed since the DOJ filed its suit, what’s happened?
S&P has stonewalled the government. It wants to break up the suit into different parts. It also wants to countersue the government, saying the lawsuit is retaliation for S&P lowering the U.S. credit rating down a notch from AAA during the debt-ceiling impasse in Congress. But S&P says it might negotiate a less than $1 billion settlement deal.
It’s ongoing. The thing that gives me hope is that we’ve seen successful cases won against big banks, including admissions of guilt, in a few circumstances.
If in time this case is won and S&P has to plead guilty, there will be more and more lawsuits all over the place. And because no one has gone to jail, which is a tragedy, at least stripping pigs of some of their money – though sadly it’s all shareholders’ money – is better than a stick in the eye.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is finally getting in on the game and may be going after S&P. A so-called Wells notice has been served to S&P. The SEC issues such notices when it wants to let a target know it’s being looked at.
It’s comforting to know the SEC is on the case, because without the SEC where in heaven’s name would we all be?
You also might be wondering about that other massive rating agency, Moody’s, and why it hasn’t been implicated in any wrongdoing. After all, the folks there were doing the exact same thing as S&P was being paid billions of dollars to do: lie.
Maybe in due time. But don’t hold your breath.
While all that was going on, a little old man everyone reveres – a man who chastises Wall Street and then comes to its aid, in the name of helping America of course – owned a giant chunk of Moody’s when it was making all that greasy money.
Of course, in time Warren Buffett got rid of the albatross around his neck. But as far as the government going after Moody’s and dragging in the venerable one himself, that’s going to take time.
Like I said, don’t hold your breath.