Liars Bond Ratings

Robert Waldmann

is reading the article everyone is reading by Michael Lewis on what went wrong. My jaw just dropped. Long long ago, I wondered how bond rating agencies could be so powerful without being corrupted. For months I have wondered how they could get ratings so wrong (and assumed it wasn’t corruption). I’d guessed that, to avoid moral hazard, they worked according to rules which made it possible for financial innovators to game the ratings.

I was wrong. Getting toxic sludge rated AAA was like stealing candy from a baby.

For instance, he knew that the big Wall Street investment banks took huge piles of loans that in and of themselves might be rated BBB, threw them into a trust, carved the trust into tranches, and wound up with 60 percent of the new total being rated AAA.

But he couldn’t figure out exactly how the rating agencies justified turning BBB loans into AAA-rated bonds. “I didn’t understand how they were turning all this garbage into gold,” he says. He brought some of the bond people from Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, and UBS over for a visit. “We always asked the same question,” says Eisman. “Where are the rating agencies in all of this? And I’d always get the same reaction. It was a smirk.” He called Standard & Poor’s and asked what would happen to default rates if real estate prices fell. The man at S&P couldn’t say; its model for home prices had no ability to accept a negative number. “They were just assuming home prices would keep going up,” Eisman says.

Now there is something (else) odd about this passage. I thought people re-tranched mezzanine loans, because hedge funds wanted the lowest rated tranches, but I don’t see how their could be confusion on the main point.