Published on
the Madison Capital Times (Wisconsin)

Crying Crocodile Tears for Standard & Poor’s

Why do I get this vicarious feeling of delight whenever I read a headline like this: “States could add to S&P exposure.”

That’s a Wall Street Journal headline on a story that reported that Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services could face a much higher legal bill than the $5 billion the federal government is seeking because several of the states are now deciding to join the battle against the credit-ratings firm.

S&P earlier this month was named in a Justice Department suit for its role during the financial crisis of 2008-09. The feds say the credit ratings company caused some banks and credit unions to lose $5 billion after they relied on its ratings of mortgage-linked securities. S&P gave those securities top ratings when, in fact, they were so risky that when they melted down a few months later they brought the country’s economy to its knees and lost billions for both institutional and individual investors who had trusted the firm’s ratings.

S&P failed miserably in the role for which it is paid hundreds of millions of dollars to help investors understand the risk behind their investments.

Indeed, The New York Times’ business columnist Floyd Norris compared S&P’s actions during the run-up to the Great Recession with the accounting firm Arthur Andersen that was destroyed by its negligence with ill-fated Enron Corp.

“They were the gatekeepers, with a clear conflict of interest — the people they were supposed to check up on where also the ones who hired and paid them,” Norris wrote. “The need to protect their reputation was supposed to assure that the conflict would not lead to bad behavior. But it did not.

“That is a description of what happened to Arthur Andersen more than a decade ago,” he added. “It may turn out to be a description of what will happen to Standard & Poor’s as a result of its behavior during the housing boom.”

It was S&P, you may remember, that unceremoniously lowered the U.S. government’s AAA rating last year in the midst of the crisis over raising the debt limit. Somehow, it was worried about the ability of the United States to pay its debts, but couldn’t find anything wrong with the cavalier way the big banks and mortgage companies were wheeling and dealing housing loans before 2008.

Guess that’s why I don’t feel sorry for S&P.

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