Recently in Credit Crisis Category

United States v. Standard & Poor's

February 5, 2013

  

 

United States v. Standard & Poor's

By R Tamara de Silva

January 5, 2013

       The Department of Justice filed a civil lawsuit yesterday against one of the of big three credit ratings agencies, Standard & Poor's ("S&P") and its parent company, McGraw-Hill, Inc.[1]  The suit alleges that S&P deliberately gave its coveted triple-A ratings to sub-prime debt in order to win fees.  The suit does not address the structural conflicts of interest within the three credit ratings agencies that are Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations ("NSRO"), nor will it address or cure any of the underlying causes of the credit crisis.  While there are problems with the credit rating agency business model, it will be difficult to prove that S&P knew any more than even the audit committees of the investment firms on whom it relied, or the issuers of debt instruments themselves.  The suit will of course result in the levy of a fine.  But while S&P's hands may not be entirely unsullied- far more importantly to the untrained public eye, they are as good a scapegoat as any other.

       S&P is a credit rating agency whose business is to provide credit ratings represented by letters from triple-A to D, in exchange for fees.  Federal laws require that certain institutions only hold investments that have a credit rating of "investment grade," but most of the financial world relies on credit ratings agencies to weigh and measure risk, risk defined in terms of the credit worthiness of investments and institutions.    S&P is the largest of three credit ratings agencies that is recognized by the Securities and Exchange Commission ("SEC") as an NSRO.   From 2004 towards the end of 2008, S&P assigned credit ratings on nearly $4 trillion of debt instruments.  In terms of sheer size and credibility, despite this suit and skepticism of the NSROs particularly in Europe, the world has no credible alternative to credit ratings agencies and specifically nothing to replace, Standard & Poors.

       Keep in mind that almost five years after the worst financial crisis in United States history, the Department of Justice has yet to criminally charge a single culpable senior executive or firm.  If history is any guide, the Justice Department will reach a civil settlement with S&P wherein the firm will agree, without admitting any wrongdoing, to pay a fine that in relative terms, will have as large a fiscal impact on S&P as the cost of one month's dry kibble would have to the owners of the Grumpy Cat.  The suit asks for a fine in excess of $1 billion but these will typically be negotiated down and the government has not latterly demonstrated a willingness to go to trial with these suits.  Like so many Wall Street settlements reached over the past ten years, the cost of the settlement fine imposed will ultimately be a pittance relative to the quarterly earnings of the offending firm-S&P is not likely to become the first exception to this rule.

       There in the gilded annals of academic and economic theory yet remains the tidy axiom that markets are self-correcting.  It is thought that market forces of supply and demand will drive out weaker competitors and bring in new ones through their own determinative natural selection.  It is not necessarily so.  Yet this assumption is an inescapable cliché of economic theory now unfortunately embedded into political discourse.  This axiom ignores the asymmetrical political and economic power of some market participants relative to others, and the use of regulation to give some participants a structural competitive advantage over others.  Self-correcting economic behavior occurs famously in the instance of market bubbles like tulip manias, Internet stocks and real estate bubbles, all of which eventually burst.   However, none of this bursting applies to credit ratings agencies. 

       Credit ratings agencies are often wrong, have been wrong and will not, even under Dodd-Frank, need to be correct, much less try harder to do so, or for that matter make any effort towards attempting to.   All three credit ratings agencies adjusted their triple-A ratings of debt instruments to less than investment grade at virtually the same time the rest of the world figured out there was a problem with them.  In their defense, S&P points out that credit ratings are, "forward-looking opinions about credit risk. Standard & Poor's credit ratings express the agency's opinion about the ability and willingness of an issuer, such as a corporation or state or city government, to meet its financial obligations in full and on time." [2]  The problem is that by the time the credit ratings agencies, self-correct, their statements are no longer forward looking or even present looking but much more akin to being told how a movie ends a few months after you have seen it.

       Not that long ago, collateralized debt obligations were repackaged during the credit bubble into investment pools and other mortgage backed securities and collectively adorned with the gold standard of financial ratings, the coveted AAA ratings of the largest credit ratings agencies, Fitch, S&P and Moody's.   The credit ratings agencies gave their coveted and in theory elusive triple-A rating to investments that were anything but credit worthy or in the best case, possessed of a very mixed credit pedigree.  The agencies' bestowal of triple-A ratings to companies and investment vehicles that were junk and later discovered to be junk, caused losses in the billions and trillions of dollars to everyone who relied on their ratings--essentially everyone.

       The role of the credit ratings agencies, was present from Goldman Sachs' knowingly selling instruments it bet against in Abacus to Citigroup's selling of investments it also bet against-all these transactions of a seemingly knowing fraud were adorned with triple-A ratings.  Triple-A ratings played an essential role in the credit crisis- enough to make them arguably the largest "but-for" causal culprit of the financial crisis.  "But for" the credit ratings agencies bestowal of triple-A ratings on sub-prime debt investments, the credit crisis would not have occurred.   But the financial world does not operate as simply as the liability model used by personal injury lawyers to make someone pay for car accidents or anything resulting in a personal injury.  The financial world is incomparably more complex and the causes of the financial crisis are many.

       In a larger sense, the credit ratings agencies cannot help it.  The fault lies with their business model and that having no competition, they really can be wrong in the largest possible way and not be "wrong" in the conventional sense. 

       The big three credit ratings agencies are bestowed with a monopoly by the government and if the world did not like the big three credit ratings agencies, it would find (with the exception of a few marginal players) that it had precisely nowhere else to go.  Put another away, even after having the SEC accuse them of consumer fraud, and being about as wrong as they can be, the big three credit ratings agencies still rate 96% of the world's bonds.  Sort of as Henry Ford was reputed to have said about offering customers the choice of a new model T in "any color so long as its black."

       What is more, their business model makes the ratings agencies operate within a closed conflict of interest loop.  The credit ratings agencies are paid by the issuers (who are also their clients) of the securities they were supposed to evaluate-this creates a conflict of interest.

       But the government, or specifically the SEC knew of the conflicts of interest within the credit rating agency business model and approved of them.  In June 2007, the SEC acknowledged that there might be a real problem having the referee in a match being paid by one of the sides-not the investors or the public's side either.   The SEC asked S&P for documentation of how S&P handled conflicts of interests and after several months of scrutiny, approved of S&P as a NSRO--again, after having vetted the inherent conflicts of interest within S&P's business model. 

       The ratings agencies have lobbying power in Washington and every interest in protecting their triopoly, which remains, even after the Credit Crisis and the implementation of Dodd-Frank, wholly unscathed.  But really, in the absence of any alternative and near total dependency, the world has an interest in S&P too.

       The most persuasive mitigating factor against charging the S&P or any of the credit ratings agencies with fraud is that they themselves relied on the internal audit committees of their clients/issuers.  The credit ratings agencies relied on the audit committees of their issuer clients, which committees had signed off and attested to the S&P and the other credit ratings agencies about the value and risk profiles of the investments for which they sought ratings.  Ultimately, unless corporate boards are compromised of crony Chia pets distinctly and wholly incapable of bearing any liability or culpability (a very real possibility upon even a cursory scrutiny- and another discussion for another time), they ought to bear the responsibility for misleading the credit ratings agencies, or simply not knowing what they were doing.

       Either the investment banks' audit committees were not qualified to pass on these investments or the credit ratings agencies were not.  What now seems obvious is that both the credit ratings agencies and the audit committees were not sophisticated enough to understand the investment products they were charged with scrutinizing.  They approved of them anyway.  

       The credit ratings agencies could not give accurate ratings of many of the instruments involved in the housing bubble and credit crisis because of the complexity of the transactions involved and their inability to understand what they were analyzing.  Not knowing what they were doing makes them at least guilty, if they were regular market participants, (which they are not) of criminal fraud.   They may have culpability because they perpetuated a fraud on the marketplace by accepting money and using their position of trust, as a government sanctioned arbiter or investments, to pretend to pass on investments when in reality they did not know what they were examining or did and had a financial incentive to lie.  One thing is certain, were the credit ratings agencies like any number of the two-bit individuals the Department of Justice and SEC have prosecuted, one could say that the prosecution of fraud is not disproportionately tilted towards the smallest financial participants, or at least squarely away from the largest ones.

       In theory, the credit ratings agencies exist to level asymmetries of information.  They are also supposed to evaluate risk.   Unfortunately, the credit ratings agencies have conflicts of interests and they evaluate financial products (like collateralized debt obligations) that they do not understand.  They were far from alone in not understanding the debt instruments presented to them.  In 2007, even Ben Bernanke thought the risk of sub-prime debt was contained.  The ratings agencies, like most of Wall Street during financial crises seemed to lack fixed ways to measure absolute risk, and as a result during financial crises, when you would most want risk models to work, they too prove catastrophically wrong.  Moreover, as much as Wall Street was wrong in assessing its risk, so was the government and many of Wall Street's largest institutions-so why merely pick on S&P?  Unlike all of the players on Wall Street however, the credit ratings agencies are still the only game in town.  The Department of Justice's civil suit will do nothing to change this.@

R Tamara de Silva

Chicago, Illinois



[2] http://www.standardandpoors.com/ratings/definitions-and-faqs/en/us

A Tale of Two Classes of Defendant and Lanny Breuer

January 28, 2013

A Tale of Two Classes of Defendant and Lanny Breuer

By R Tamara de Silva

January 28, 2013

 

"swaying power such as has never in the world's history been trusted in the hands of mere private citizens,...after having created a system of quiet but irresistible corruption-will ultimately succeed in directing government itself.  Under the American form of society, there is now no authority capable of effective resistance." 

Henry Adams writing about the corruption of the Erie Railroad for the Westminster Review in 1870, he described corporate influence growing to the point of being uncheckable with political parties that would sacrifice principle for accommodation.

 

       Last week, the Head of the Department of Justice's Criminal Division, Lanny Breuer, announced his resignation.  His resignation is remarkable only in so far that it draws attention to the enormity of what he would not do.  Under Breuer's watch, leaving aside some high profile and related insider trading prosecutions, not one senior Wall Street executive was prosecuted or even charged (by some accounts- not even investigated) with anything having to do with the worst financial crisis in American history-a crisis that resulted in a bailout of Wall Street banks and the financial sector at a cost to American taxpayers of between $43.32-$59.75 billion.[1]  A day before Lanny Breuer's resignation, PBS' Frontline aired an investigation about the failure of the Justice Department to prosecute a single senior banker involved in the mortgage crisis called, "The Untouchables."  During this same time that the Department of Justice refused to go after a single head of a Wall Street firm, they took a particularly hard line on a torture whistleblower (not the torturers), and many financial criminals responsible for not the billions caused by elite Wall Street firms but between thousands to hundreds of thousands like elderly couples for possible pension fraud, an appraiser in Florida, individuals who committed bank fraud by lying on mortgage applications and other criminals like pot smokers and Aaron Swartz.  It is not that I condone wrong-doing, only a record of selective prosecution on steroids.  Lanny Breuer's Justice Department exposed its full fury to the chubs of the criminal justice systems while systematically saving the titans and whales.

 

Prosecutorial Discretion and Sympathy for the Titan

       One of the reasons, Lanny Breuer gave for the non-prosecution of a senior Wall Street executive is sympathy for employees and shareholders.  In his interview with Martin Smith of Frontline, Mr. Breuer repeated a specific if selective, empathy, wholly at odds with the charge he had been given by Senator Kaufman to investigate and hold to account all those responsible for the financial crisis.[2]   This selective empathy is also wholly at odds with the unbiased way in which most of us naively think justice is administered and prosecutions are sought.  By the way, after this interview aired, Martin Smith states that he was called by the Justice Department and told that they would never cooperate with PBS again.[3] 

       In September of last year, Mr. Breuer admitted his particular empathy towards the plight of the largest of Wall Street banks when he addressed the New York Bar Association and said,

In my conference room, over the years, I have heard sober predictions that a company or bank might fail if we indict, that innocent employees could lose their jobs, that entire industries may be affected, and even that global markets will feel the effects.  Sometimes - though, let me stress, not always - these presentations are compelling.  In reaching every charging decision, we must take into account the effect of an indictment on innocent employees and shareholders, just as we must take into account the nature of the crimes committed and the pervasiveness of the misconduct.  I personally feel that it's my duty to consider whether individual employees with no responsibility for, or knowledge of, misconduct committed by others in the same company are going to lose their livelihood if we indict the corporation.  In large multi-national companies, the jobs of tens of thousands of employees can be at stake.  And, in some cases, the health of an industry or the markets are a real factor.  Those are the kinds of considerations in white collar crime cases that literally keep me up at night, and which must play a role in responsible enforcement. 

When the only tool we had to use in cases of corporate misconduct was a criminal indictment, prosecutors sometimes had to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut.[4]

 

 

       It is odd that this same Justice Department did not take sympathy into account in demanding that Aaron Swartz serve 35 years or for that matter, the plight of all smaller defendants.  The omnibus catchall Computer Fraud and Abuse Act ("CFAA") could make criminals of many of us because it seeks to criminalize the use of a computer without authorization but no where defines what "authorization" means. 

       When the government freezes a defendant's assets or seizes property even before a filing of charges making it impossible for them to pay for a decent lawyer (assuming they can even afford one), does it really care how the defendant (before being proven guilty) manages to eat or live in the interim of years it can take from investigation to sentencing? 

       Where was the sympathy for Senator Ted Stevens?  Was it anything but a sheer lack of empathy that led to the career-ending prosecution of a six term Senator and the deliberate withholding of exculpatory evidence in his case?  What about the many cases where defendants are exonerated by physical evidence that the prosecution possessed but did not reveal at the time?  Where is the sympathy for the years or decades of a life that are lost because exculpatory evidence is not released or DNA evidence kits are not processed?  Or is the empathy that Lanny Breuer refers to, as selectively held as its application under Lanny Breuer's tenor suggests?

 

Conflicts of Money

       Money influences prosecutions.  Consider the tale of two men performing the identical act in the criminal law Jon Corzine and Russell Wasenfdorf, Sr.  Corzine was one of President Obama's elite bundlers in 2011 and 2012.  He campaigned heavily for the President as governor of New Jersey, and held private fundraisers for President Obama in his home even after MF Global went bankrupt and $1.6 billion of customer funds went missing in October 2011.  The Justice Department announced that they would not prosecute him.

       It was discovered in June 2012 that Peregrine Financial Group CEO, Russell Wasendorf Sr., like Corzine at MF Global, had tapped into customer segregated funds to the tune of $215 million.  Russell Wasendorf Sr was arrested and criminally charged later same that month.   Same act-missing customer funds that were by law not to touched-but a far disparate prosecution.[5] 

       Under Lanny Breuer, the Justice Department announced it would not go after Goldman Sachs. Goldman Sachs' employees were the second largest single contributor to President Obama in 2008 contributing $1,013,091.[6] Goldman Sachs is also one of the largest clients of Mr. Eric Holder's lawyer firm Covington & Burling.

       Speaking of Covington & Burling, Lanny Breuer worked at Covington along with Attorney General Eric Holder.  Their firm's largest clients were many of the Wall Street banks that were involved in the securitization of mortgage debt that contributed to the financial crisis.

       According to Reuters, Attorney General Holder and Lanny Breuer were expected to recuse themselves (a functional impossibility) under federal conflict of interest laws from Department of Justice decisions related to many of Wall Street's largest banks.  Of course they have not admitted to doing so in any instance of which I am aware.[7] 

 

Abacus and Such

       Goldman's Abacus scheme would fit into the most selective definitions of fraud. Goldman invented Abacus, according to an SEC civil complaint and an investor, to fail so that one of its largest hedge fund clients, Paulson & Co, could short it.[8]  In the meantime, Goldman sold Abacus bonds to many other investors all the while allowing Goldman to take in large investment banking fees from the sale and from the purchase. The problem is, the investors were not aware that Goldman's largest hedge fund client along with Goldman Sachs was betting against them and that as such Goldman Sachs may have a conflict of interest in designing what went into Abacus.  Goldman claimed that somewhere within all the disclosure statements was a reference to all this.   The Department of Justice announced it would not seek any criminal fraud charges against Goldman.  Goldman Sachs settled the civil suit for $550 million, which is not a lot for a company that earns billions of dollars per quarter.

       On November 28, 2011, Judge Jed S. Rakoff rejected what would have been the sixth civil settlement agreement between Citigroup Global Markets Inc. and the SEC since 2003 for $285 million.  Citigroup had sold $1 billion in mortgage-bonds through a vehicle called Class V Funding III, without disclosing that it was betting against $500 million of those assets-in essence offering something to its customers and not disclosing that it would be betting against its customers.  The Department of Justice was not about to seek criminal fraud charges against Citigroup either.

       Civil settlements between the SEC and other parties are alternatively called consent decrees and they are a far cry from criminal prosecution. Nor do they deter misconduct because no admission of wrong-doing is required and the fines are pin money to the banks. 

       It is in the public's interest to prevent fraud upon the market and to prevent the type of financial engineering solely for the sake of fees that can lead to catastrophic losses ultimately borne by society as a whole.  The type of hyperleveraged machinations, not understood by the banks themselves that wind up privatizing profit and publicizing loss. The problem with selective prosecution of financial crime or any crime, is that it undermines the very idea of justice, whose force and majesty lie in its fair and unbiased application.  When the Executive branch's justice department seeks fines from banks which fees are so small as to be written off as a rational and good cost of doing business, while simultaneously pursuing prosecutions against smaller parties and the comparatively disenfranchised, it is no longer dealing out justice.  It is selectively doling out punishments to those not in its favor.@

R. Tamara de Silva



Facebook's IPO, NASDAQ and the Illiquid Electronic Marketplace Revisited

May 24, 2012
Facebook's IPO, NASDAQ and the Illiquid Electronic Marketplace Revisited


By R Tamara de Silva

May 24, 2012



According to the news people, there is blame to be had all around after shares of the largest initial public offering in history, Facebook (FB), lost almost twenty percent of their value in the first three days of being publicly traded. However, the lasting lesson of FB's IPO is that the financial world's increasing reliance exclusively on electronic trading often leads to catastrophic problems during critical market events.

Discontent over FB's IPO is heard from regulators and especially investors who saw the value of the their investment drop, to those who consider that the IPO was priced to perfection at 106 times its last 12 month's earnings or at 5 times the value of the most valuable (according to market capitalization) company in the world, Apple. The possibility of investing in FB's initial public offering, as in any other IPO, always bore the risk of buying an IPO at a price above its market price-that is the price it has in the publicly traded market. That said, very public examples of less than elegant IPOs are said, (whether in practice their impact is meaningful or not), to threaten the investing public's appetite for prospective IPOs. Another concern with FB's IPO is the possibility that FB, and its lead underwriters including Morgan Stanley, J.P. Morgan, and Goldman, Sachs & Co., failed to disclose material information involving new information about FB's revenue prospects during the IPO roadshow to all but a handful of their large clients-not the public supposedly because their larger clients had paid for the seemingly "inside information." Keep in mind that under the federal Securities laws, information about revenue, operations and prospects of a planned IPO are considered "material information" and must be divulged to the public in a very scripted manner. This has already resulted in a class action lawsuit filed for $15 billion in damages to the investing public. Another and more significant class action lawsuit was filed on the third day of FB becoming public, a lawsuit which picks up on the most important aspect of FB's IPO - the failure of one of the world's largest and its fastest electronic trading platforms-the NASDAQ.[1 ] Traders and investors who placed orders in FB on the day of its IPO were stuck in limbo as the electronic exchange that calls itself, "the power behind 1 in 10 of the world's securities transactions" froze and stopped working. NASDAQ's software issues constitute neither a reasonable failure nor an excusable one. Let the world take note that we will rue the end of the trading floor and open outcry as FB's IPO demonstrates how we are hostage to electronic software that like all software will fail or have glitches and show us how worthless electronic markets are when they are completely illiquid and we are held hostage to them.

All market transactions involve a degree of risk. In the law as in the markets, there is a presumption, albeit rebuttable, that the greater the amount of information a market participant has, the better able the participant is to assume and understand the risk behind a transaction. Information is valuable in decision making until such time that too much information leads to diminishing returns because the amount of information incapacitates the decision-maker and prevents him from making a decision. Risk increases dramatically when a market participant's information about price and order execution becomes nil. This is precisely what happened to the traders of close to 30 million shares of FB on the day of its IPO because of a software glitch at the NASDAQ.
What happened on the day of FB's IPO to most of the traders of FB shares is a condition little understood-the state of high illiquidity along with a lack of transparency. Transparency refers to the degree of information that is available. In a perfectly transparent market all relevant information about a market transaction from the price, order size, order flow, trading volume, identity of the traders/counterparties, all bids and offers available, etc. would theoretically be discoverable.

Transparency's value in the marketplace is best explained by its absence- a condition of opaqueness. Lack of transparency in the financial markets is called opaqueness. The environment that led to the past credit crisis was opaque. In the past mortgage debacle, few of the players knew what the baskets of mortgages they were packaging, buying and selling were actually worth. The participants in instruments that led to that last crisis operated in a very opaque if not downright murky environment. The mortgage related securities being traded from brokers to banks and between banks were not pegged to the value of anything tangible and often marked by model to myth. One could make the case that they were not even derivatives because their value was effectively not derived from an underlying anything.[ 2]

Illiquid and opaque markets occurred during FB's IPO. The opposite of illiquidity in the market is liquidity. Liquidity is the lifeblood of well functioning trading markets. In its simplest terms, liquidity is the ability of a market participant to trade at his or her price-that is to get in and out of the market at their chosen price. A history of the financial markets shows that liquidity requires a broad based collection of market makers to keep markets liquid. The more market participants the better. Without market makers, we see wide illiquid market spreads. These wide bid offer spreads in turn lead to market maker defection, to volume decreases and unfavorable trading markets for the public at large.

The regulated futures market, long a stepchild of the financial markets, with open outcry and electronic trading is the most liquid and transparent market in the world. It has been remarkably free from systemic financial crisis . . .with the exception of a certain salad oil scandal. All over the world at any given time, the value and the price of an S&P500 futures contract are known. What is more impressive is that during all major crises from the market crashes to presidential assassinations, the futures markets with open outcry have maintained their liquidity and their ability to absorb even the world's crisis level order flow or volume-without a glitch.

But most people, even corporate governance committees at financial exchanges conflate volume for liquidity-they are completely distinct. Most of the trading volume now on the largest domestic trading exchanges is in the form of electronic trading or more precisely in the equity markets, it is in high frequency trading. High frequency trading is spreading from securities to other markets like futures, currencies, derivatives, and debt instruments and to the overseas exchanges. To put this in perspective, in 2003 high frequency trading accounted for only 5% of all trading volume while today it is well over 70%.

High frequency trading firms ("HFTs") utilize a series of algorithms to take advantage of the computers' speed and proximity to the marketplaces to get information about orders and price before every other market participant. Three types of institutions comprise the trading volume of HFTs and are what is meant by HFTs: 48% proprietary high frequency trading firms, 46% investment banks and 6% hedge funds. Investment banks often have dual roles in owning proprietary high frequency trading firms and directing investment bank trade to and from these firms.

The physical exchanges like NYSE, NASDAQ and CBOE lease out space to HFTs that allows them to place their supercomputers directly next to the supercomputers of the exchanges thereby giving the HFTs advantages of milliseconds and microseconds-to see price and order information (inside information) before anyone else that is not paying for co-location and does not have a supercomputer with algorithms at the physical exchange. Their proximity to the servers at the physical exchanges give them an insurmountable advantage which they utilize to "trade," or effectively front-run everyone else's orders. Any argument that we have a level playing field in terms of price and order information in the market today is simply false.

It should be said that for the majority of the time and in non-crisis conditions, HFT works and is the major revenue generator for the electronic equity exchanges. It is argued that HFTs, like their human counterparts, are market makers in that they provide price discovery. I am profoundly skeptical of the argument that HFTs are pure market makers as this term has historically been understood because they are not active market makers. HFTs are quintessentially passive, largely using their location and software advantage to detect volume and to see order flow before everyone else and to react to it. Their market making activities are essentially different from the floor trader and floor broker who will take an unqualified risk even in the most volatile times, HFTs make markets passively by reacting to other people's activities that they are able to see happening before anyone else can. HFTs hold their market positions for milliseconds up to a few hours. Often HFTs fish for what order flow is out there by sending out false quotes to induce a reaction and therefore gauge the type of order flow that is out there in milliseconds before retracting its bids and offers-long before anyone would react to them...things non HFTs simply cannot do and what would on the trading floor be called the jailable offenses front-running and trading on inside information...but I digress.

The fact is most volume on equity exchanges like NASDAQ and NYSE are the result of electronic order flow and HFTs. However, these "traders" or algorithms are historically the very worst market-makers when crises occur because unlike their human counterparts, they largely bolt-withdrawing and canceling bids and offers en masse. Hence in times of crisis, in the marketplace dominated by HFTs, liquidity not just lessons, in the absence of human market makers, it largely disappears. What this means for all other traders and the public is that they cannot execute their orders or trade when a market crisis occurs.

This is what happened during the Flash crash of May 6, 2010 wherein the Dow dropped almost 1,000 points (the biggest intraday loss in history) losing nearly 10% of its value in seconds along with most of the 8,000 individual stocks and exchange traded funds, some of which traded 60% below their value of seconds prior before ultimately recovering. A September 30, 2010 report by the joint staffs of the CFTC and SEC to the Joint Advisory Committee on Emerging Regulatory Issues, that studied the causes of the Flash crash found that the presence of electronic trading and its interaction with HFTs during that crisis eroded liquidity, "the interaction between automated execution programs and algorithmic trading strategies can quickly erode liquidity and result in disorderly markets."[3 ]

In the case of FB's IPO, and according to sources including the trading database developer Nanex LLC, HFTs caused the NASDAQ to have to delay the opening of trading on FB because of "excessive quote cancellations," adding that this is "ironic enough, it was mostly HFTs that benefited later when NASDAQ quotes stopped coming from the Securities Information Processor (SIP) which transmits quotes for everyone who doesn't get the premium direct feeds."[ 4] In other words, NASDAQ's software could not handle the volume of bids, offers and cancellations from HFTs before FB's opening.

At this point, it would not be logical for the exchanges to commission independent research and study into the true impact of HFT on price discovery, liquidity and volatility and what this means to their markets because the volume of trades generated by HFTs constitutes their major source of revenue. The exchanges now have a conflict of interest between their vital public functions of providing price discovery and liquidity and their bottom line.[5 ] Both the SEC and CFTC noted in their joint report into the Flash Crash of May 6 2010 that "high trading volume is not necessarily a reliable indicator of market liquidity". As I stated above, liquidity erodes or disappears in a market crisis where there is a prevalence of HFTs because volume comprised of quotes and price information recorded in the milliseconds (1/1000th of a second) if not microseconds (1/millionth of a second and the current speed of many HFTs) that can be withdrawn and cancelled before ever being in danger of being executed is not only not known with certainty to be recorded, but it is "noise" in terms of its impact on price discovery and it is simply not executable liquidity.

There was a time just a few years ago when the largest exchanges in the United States were de facto public utilities. They provided the most crucial of all functions to the world, they established the price of all the metals, grain, oil and bonds the world needed to exist. Price discovery and the liquidity provided by their trading members to the world was a vital service to the world economy. The equity exchanges existed primarily to provide equity capital to businesses through the exchange in ownership of shares traded at the exchange. Now the exchanges are by and large public companies with elaborate corporate structures and well paid corporate boards whose concern has shifted away from assuring the most liquid and crisis-free markets in the world to layers of decisions made by committees all with the view to revenue and deliberately not thinking outside of the revenue generating box. This is not a problem in principle except in this case it will be because the exchanges in protecting their primary revenue source, the HFTs, will no longer function as they once did and the public will suffer. Future crises will likely result in crippling illiquidity that will harm the trading public and result in massive financial losses.@
R. Tamara de Silva

May 24, 2012
Chicago, Illinois

R. Tamara de Silva is an independent trader and lawyer

Footnotes:
1. Case 12 cv 04054 Phillip Goldberg v. NASDAQ, OMX Group, Inc. and the NASDAQ Stock Market LLC-which I am attaching here: Goldberg v. Nasdaq .pdf

2. But if they were, their value was not discoverable, or perhaps not verifiable. The values of mortgage securities were not marked to market, they were not pegged to an underlying asset, and if they were, no reasonable allowance was made for unfavorable movements in the value of the underlying assets.

3. http://www.sec.gov/news/studies/2010/marketevents-report.pdf

4. http://www.nanex.net/aqck/3099.html

5. According to one credible source, one of the Chicago exchanges has established its own HFT that will likely compete with its customers and the investing public.

J.P. Morgan's $2.3 Billion Loss as a Red Herring

May 14, 2012


J.P. Morgan's Loss as a Red Herring
By R Tamara de Silva
May 14, 2012

Much ado is being made about J. P. Morgan's disclosure of over $2 billion in trading losses and one hopes the media and regulators do not use this as yet another opportunity to completely miss the point. Wall street must not rely exclusively on its present risk models that are based exclusively on VaR and variations of VaR-it must learn to think outside its own box and anticipate worse case scenarios. We cannot afford to have many more systemic crises that threaten to bring down the financial system simply because yet again, the unexpected and un-modeled occurs.

Chief Executive Jamie Dimon's public self-flagellation aside, this loss compromises merely 20% percent of J. P. Morgan's pretax profit for the first quarter of this year. Put another way, J. P. Morgan has a market capitalization of $137.4 billion of which $2 billion comprises a bit more than 1 percent--hardly fodder for anyone's angst against quasi-public Wall Street juggernauts that seem to privatize profit and publicize loss being 'too big to fail." Mr. Dimon is wrong to assert that the trading losses were the result of hedges. It would be more wrong for lawmakers on either side of the aisle to call for hasty regulations on an industry they have never really understood and from whose pockets they are lobbied and receive the heftiest campaign contributions. A cursory look at what has happened to the Volcker Rule illustrates this point. The real lesson of J. P. Morgan's $2.3 billion loss is that Wall Street must once and for all adjust the way it manages and understands risk.

Risk management is the difference between success and ruin in the financial markets and its failure is felt around the world by even those hapless individuals who have never sold a credit derivative. No where is the importance of risk management better illustrated than to recount our most recent crises, which according to Wall Street's most prevalent measurement of risk, Value at Risk (VaR), were never supposed to happen: The market crashes of 1987 and 2000, Long-Term Capital Management, the collapse of Bear Stearns, the Savings and Loan Crisis, the crash of 1929, the collapse of Northern Rock, the Russian Debt crisis. Understanding risk is the single most important consideration for any participant, from the independent trader to the juggernaut of a Goldman Sachs.

But what does Wall Street understand by the term risk? There are many discussions of what constitutes "risk" in the financial markets but not surprisingly, there is no one definition. Typically, discussions of risk revolve around the concepts of Value at Risk (VAR), beta, delta, the capital asset pricing model (CAPM) and the Black-Scholes options pricing model (BSM). All these ways of quantifying risk are based on inarguably faulty assumptions.

This is where a refresher on the Gaussian Bell Curve enters any discussion on Wall Street's risk models. There are really only two things worth knowing about a Gaussian Bell Curve this is also taught to the legions of business school graduates who go on to write risk models as analysts and traders on Wall Street. The first is that a Gaussian Bell Curve assumes events occur in a normal distribution. What this means is that in a Gaussian Bell Curve, if events or occurrences were plotted, they would occur in the largest numbers at or towards the very center of the bell curve. All these events, plotted on a chart would take the shape of a bell curve, hence the name. Events which occur less frequently would occur towards the edges of the curve. The further the event was from the center of the bell curve, the more improbable it is to occur. This is called a normal distribution. The second thing one should know about the Gaussian Bell Curve, perhaps less well taught is that it does not predict market events very well at all.

Analysts at investment banks make models of reality with predictive capability-it is called modeling. J. P. Morgan invented Risk Metrics in 1994 as a set of financial models that were to be used by investors to measure portfolio risk. Risk Metrics like financial modeling in general, attempts to take a certain set of variables or causes and isolate them as being the very variables that account for change in financial markets. This is a bit simplistic but works reasonably well when reality happens within the fat center of a bell curve. Financial models seek to replicate financial reality much like economic models and models of human behavior that have become extremely popular in the social sciences writ large. Financial risk models like social science models suffer from all the weakness and frailty of over-simplifying reality and selectively isolating causal variables. In sum, financial risk models fail catastrophically when worse-case scenarios or even the genuinely unexpected occurs.

This does not mean we have a reasonable alternative to risk models as we humans do not like indeterminacy. We do not like to make decisions or look back in hindsight and think we made decisions by tossing a coin. On the contrary, we like to find reasons for why we made decisions and why events occurred. We tend to think we can. We have at times an irrational belief in the rational. But as Pascal once stated, nothing is more rational than the abdication of reason itself. The ability of social scientists or investment bankers to explain events through the actions of rational human actors appeals to our psyche. It is appealing simply to think we can.

Models of the financial markets like models of the human behavior in the social sciences have serious limitations. To start, they have to simplify reality. One of the ways that modeling simplifies and in a sense, falsifies reality is by making assumptions about human beings, which are not true. For example, modeling tends to assume that humans, whether in a marketplace or in a poker game are rational and that they act at all times in accordance with their best interests. This is not borne out by reality. Any cursory historical account of human behavior belies that humans act rationally. Human beings are emotional actors as much as they are rational actors.

The supremacy of emotions to the human story is only matched by our social scientists willful neglect of them. However, given a choice, time and again, we often act on our emotions and against our rational interests. Our strongest emotions keep us awake at night, they cause us physical pain, they have helped our race to achieve beyond all expectation when at other times they have left us paralyzed. We think wishfully when we rationally should not. The markets are replete with examples of irrational exuberance, traders who act out of hope, fear and greed as much as they act out of a consistent rational interest in maximizing their profits. Markets historically at tops and bottoms have betrayed the irrational mob mentally of the masses of its participants.

If humans were truly rational, we simply would not have addictive behaviors like gambling, drug addiction, drinking or any self-destructive behavior. We may not even have much ill-health, skin cancer, road-rage, or obesity because knowing we should take care of ourselves, we would-this is rational. We may never purchase luxury items or clothes. We may not care so much about how our neighbors live because we would not feel envy, jealousy, sympathy or pity. The pursuit of leisure and charitable activities may well be quite different. So many of Tocqueville's observations about American life would not hold water.

But in reality, half of our brains are devoted to pure emotion. And this half has expressed itself as the stuff of life. We cannot seem to choose our emotions one at a time either. If we were, we would want to be able to love without being vulnerable to grief, to experience the wings of hope without putting ourselves in danger of experiencing disappointment or the failure of our hoped-for event. As a race, we have spent most of our time acting on our emotions and being in their grip as is borne out in our history, our mythologies, culture, our wars and literature. It is in every sense human to be irrational or at least to experience emotion. To argue that humans are rational actors is at a minimum to simplify things, but really it is not a valid assumption.

Modeling also suffers from faulty assumptions about the ability of human participants to gather, assimilate and react to information. Most models are sensitive to information. Information causes the rational actor in a model to act a certain way, presumably in a way that will maximize that actor's interests. In the real world, information is not perfect. There is misinformation. Rumors, false tips, erroneous analyst reports are example of misinformation. Some information that is available to a rational actor is false information. Even if we assumed that all the information available to market participants was correct and no false or misinformation was available, market participants would process and assimilate the information differently and at different rates. One example of misinformation and information assimilated at different times is the discovery of a report in 2008 on the internet that United Airlines was facing bankruptcy. This report was over a year old but it caused the price of the stock to drop by over 40% in a single day, before it was discovered that the report was old. In the real world, individually and collectively, we have different intellectual and ideological frameworks, we also have different levels of intelligence, among other factors that allow us to reach very different conclusions when faced with the same information. My neighbor may react to rising gasoline prices years faster than I would by immediately cutting down on his driving or purchasing a hybrid vehicle. Market participants react to identical information at various rates. One person may react quickly to too little information and another may wait much longer accumulating much more information. Sometimes waiting to act while accumulating and digesting information is not a good thing like waiting to liquidate a losing position before your losses wipe you out when acting sooner would have allowed you to cut your loss without going broke.

Another problem with financial models is that they do not account for insider information or conflicts of interest. A good idea for anyone with a year to spare would be to write a volume chronicling conflict of interest in the financial world. One of the inherent conflicts in investment banks has been the Chinese wall that is supposed to separate the investment banking and sales functions of the investment house from the research and analysis side. Some have argued that this Chinese wall did not always exist. There is an inherent conflict between the need to sell the investment banking services of a bank to the same customer who is being covered by the bank's analysts. There is an enormous and still unresolved conflict of interest in the functions of credit ratings agencies. The credit ratings agencies are paid by the issuers (their clients) of the securities they were supposed to evaluate, creating an inherent conflict of interest. If the analysts or agencies are too harsh in their coverage, then the ability of the bank to sell its investment banking services may suffer or the agencies will lose their clients.

What about the potentially insider information that the analysts obtained in covering a company and the danger that this information would travel across the room to the trading floor of the investment bank? Another conflict of interest certainly, but it is also an example of a market participant having insider information or simply information that other market participants do not have, before they have it.

Another fallacy with financial modeling is that models are required to isolate a fixed amount of causal variables. In other words, a financial model that was designed to predict the risk of an investment portfolio would be comprised of say twenty factors or variables, each of which or a certain number of which would affect a change in measure of risk to the investment portfolio. What if in reality, it was one hundred or ten thousand different variables or things that would change the riskiness of the portfolio?

The financial models of investment bank analysts and traders assign likelihood to the possibility of certain events occurring. Financial models assume a normal distribution (a bell curve) of asset returns or risk. Using a normal distribution, events that diverge from the mean or center of the bell curve, by five or more standard deviations, known as a five-sigma event, are very rare and ten-sigma events are nearly impossible. However, the 1987 market crash represents a change of 22 standard deviations. The odds of such a 22 standard deviation event occurring are so low as to deemed impossible.

In the real financial markets, events considered nearly impossible by financial models assuming normal distributions of events, not only are possible, they are occurring frequently. There have been multiple fluctuations greater than five standard deviations in our most recent past. Events that according to a Gaussian Bell Curve are supposed to occur only once every one hundred thousand years, if at all, are occurring in certain cases, several times in a decade. Dramatic market events or fat tails do occur in a greater frequency than is possible assuming normal distributions suggesting distributions are not normal. Since the 1998 Russian debt crisis, the global financial markets have experienced at least 10 events, none of which were supposed to occur more than once every few billion years.

The financial services industry is full of at least two generations of analysts, investment bankers, statisticians and of course economists, who have been indoctrinated through college, their masters and MBA programs to believe in the bell curve and normal distributions-it is beyond time that they learned to think outside the box. Alternatively, to the extent that any regulations are enacted, they should seek to once more separate investment banking from commercial banking so that as long as Wall Street relies on one VaR number, they are allowed to fail and their losses are never again shared by the public. @
R. Tamara de Silva

May 14, 2012
Chicago, Illinois

R. Tamara de Silva is an independent trader and lawyer

Comparing the Incomparable- Credit Ratings Agencies Revisited

January 17, 2012
Comparing the Incomparable- Credit Ratings Agencies Revisited


By R. Tamara de Silva
January 17, 2011

Yesterday, Standard & Poor's relieved the Eurozone's bail-out fund, the European Financial Stability Facility ("EFSF") of its AAA credit rating, possibly hampering the fund's ability to contain the European debt crisis. This comes on the heel's of the S&P stripping both France and Austria of their triple-A rating in favor of a rating of AA+.[1] The effect of the S&P downgrade may be negative. Ratings agencies exist to level asymmetries in information and evaluate risk but one of their inherent oddities is that they seek to compare things whose differences in scale make them incomparable. Ratings agencies also have conflicts of interests, they often evaluate financial products (like collateralized debt obligations) that they do not understand, they seem to lack fixed ways to measure absolute risk, and they are at times, catastrophically wrong.

Elephants and aardvarks

Downgrades should not be considered in a vacuum. When the ratings agencies equate economies based upon ability to repay debt, they artificially equate countries disregarding factors such as size, geo-political risk and political infrastructure that make their comparisons odd.

S&P announced on August 5, 2011 that it would downgrade the credit rating of the United States. Interestingly it announced during the last day of this same month that while the world's only superpower and largest economy would now get only a AA+ rating, securities backed by sub-prime home loans, the same type of investments that led to the worst financial debacle since the Depression (and one from which we have not yet arguably recovered) would receive its once coveted triple AAA rating...unlike the United States.

There is no question that the United States will be able to repay its debts, we will continue to print more money-the larger issue is the continual erosion in the Dollar over time. Although a currency cannot be devalued ad infinitum without catastrophic results, at least for the time being, there is no credible replacement for the Dollar continuing to be the world's reserve currency. No other nation has the assets to back up being the world's reserve currency.

Looking at the S&P's downgrade of the United States in a vacuum, one would think that it is more prudent (according to all three ratings agencies), to prefer Austria, Denmark, Norway, France, Germany, Singapore, Luxemburg, the Swiss or even Finland. There is no consensus by all three agencies on countries like Hong Kong, Australia and the Isle of Mann. Yet other than ratings, the similarity ends there. Comparing the United States, the largest and most analyzed economy in the world with relatively petite nations like Luxemburg and Finland are like comparing the teeth of an otter and an elephant-one is so remarkably larger than the other that a comparison seems problematic. Admittedly both animals have teeth. Or like comparing the speed of an elephant and an aardvark.

To put the utility of comparison between the United States, which has a GDP of $14.657 trillion, in perspective, here are the GDPs of some of the remaining triple AAA rated countries in 2010 according to the IMF [2] :

• Luxemburg has a GDP of $52.43 billion,
• Germany's GDP is $3.314 trillion (largest in the EU)
• France $ 2.582 trillion,
• United Kingdom $2.172 trillion
• Lichtenstein $4.83 billion
• China $10 trillion (largest behind United States)


Comparing the largest most innovate, most scrutinized economy in the world to a nation like China is humorous because in terms of actual accounting standards, any meaningful transparency, the complete absence of a stable democracy or political freedoms-China is a peasant country. When the United States is downgraded, there is no other United States to compare it to, so to some extent, the rating downgrade may not be absolutely everything the media proclaims it to be.

Effect of downgrade on United States so far

When the markets opened on the first Monday after S&P's downgrade of the United States, the benchmark 10-year Treasury bond's yield dropped to 2.5%. Price, which is inverse to yield in bonds, has continued to increase even approaching all-time historic levels. This past August, the 10-year yield dropped almost 60 basis points, piercing below 2% (lower than their historic all-time low in 2008 when Lehman Brothers collapsed). The demand for United States' Treasuries has increased dramatically immediately following the S&P downgrade.

If the United States were deemed less credit worthy (less likely to pay its creditors), then investors and bond holders would demand higher returns for buying any U.S. debt/bonds. The very ability of the United States to borrow money by issuing bonds would be jeopardized. The market has ruled against this logic and to a large extent against S&P-justifiably so.

Remember a government bond is a debt instrument issued by a national government denominated in that government's currency. United States Treasury securities are valued in US dollars-their price is in United States Dollars.

A risk-free interest rate is the nominal rate of return for an investment with no risk (no credit risk) [3] of financial loss. The risk-free rate of return for almost all this century was the yield of United States Treasuries.

graph.pdf

Why would the market seemingly disregard the opinion of S&P? Perhaps because many people remembered that during the housing bubble, sketchy loans (once again I proffer this as a new legal term of art) were repackaged by investment banks into investment pools and other mortgage backed securities and received the gold standard of financial ratings, the coveted and in theory elusive, AAA rating by the largest credit ratings agencies, including S&P and Moody's. S&P's granting of triple AAA ratings to companies and investment vehicles that turned into junk ratings caused $2 trillion in losses to everyone that relied on them-basically, everyone. No one else seemed to find it ironic that this same agency told the United States by how much it thought its debt should be lowered.

Conflicts of interest and fraud

But back to the credit ratings agencies... Not that long ago, in August 2010 and again in July of 2010, the SEC threatened to charge all three ratings agencies with fraud. Some would say better late than never. During the housing bubble, sketchy loans (I use this as a new legal term of art) were repackaged by investment banks into investment pools and other mortgage backed securities and received the gold standard of financial ratings, the coveted and in theory elusive, AAA rating by the largest credit ratings agencies, including S&P and Moody's. The agencies' granting of triple AAA ratings to companies and investment vehicles that turned into junk ratings caused billions if not trillions of dollars in losses to everyone that relied on them-basically, everyone. The credit ratings agencies are paid by the issuers (their clients) of the securities they were supposed to evaluate, creating an inherent conflict of interest. They were the game's referee and one of its players at the same time.

The SEC report on Credit Ratings Agencies from June 2007 identified another problem other than having the referee in a match being paid by one of the sides, (not the investors or the public's side mind you), that prevented the agencies from giving accurate ratings. The agencies could not give accurate ratings of many of the instruments involved in the housing bubble and credit crisis because of the complexity of the transactions involved and the inability of agencies to understand what they were analyzing.

One could argue that the agencies were not engaging in a deliberate (alright not a horribly deliberate) fraud, that is having a public position of trust, being paid and knowing they cannot do what they are assigned to do but pretending to do it anyway. Mind you, if anyone else had engaged in this behavior, they would have likely been indicted for fraud and possibly RICO.

What may let the agencies off the hook is that they relied on the issuers' (the clients again, usually investment banks) audit committees. Audit committees cannot seem to be comprised of Chia Pets in human dimension. The fact that these committees represented having signed off on the financial instruments in question should mean something-if not, why have these corporate committees?!

Furthermore, one could argue that the credit ratings agencies must not be held responsible for their ratings because they did not and could not have understood the trading transactions taking place at the investment banks because they had to rely on the information they were given which was not itself transparent.

A possible longer term solution to the conflict of interest driven nature of the credit ratings agencies is to take away the compensation structure of the credit ratings agencies and deregulate them completely in-order to discourage inherent conflict of interest or use the Credit Spread Market-problem solved! Take away what is essentially a government-sponsored monopoly of credit ratings agencies and allow investor paid credit ratings agencies, which could open up the market and privatize the ratings industry. Without credit ratings agencies, the market will determine value more efficiently than the analysts at the agencies. A problem with this approach is that there might be variance between the ratings of twenty agencies as opposed to just three, causing the rating on any one agency to mean less and to make more work for risk managers.

No liability

S&P has somehow avoided to this very day, all criminal and civil liability for its part in the most recent financial crisis. If the agencies had some liability for their ratings, they may have a better incentive for assuring that they got them right. Neither the Justice Department nor the SEC (which has itself managed to miss all the major financial debacles of the past five years) has ever charged S&P with criminal conflict of interest (as they in practice do and would do to any number of much smaller economic participants with a much smaller fields of damage). Neither the Justice Department nor the SEC has gone after S&P for admitting before Congress in 2008 and 2009, that their being paid by the issuers (their clients) of the securities they were supposed to evaluate, created an inherent conflict of interest and did in fact wrongly influence their ratings.

Nobody has charged the S&P with criminal fraud or fraud on the marketplace for taking money from issuers in simple bad faith (playing the part of the referee and judge in a boxing match after being paid by one of the boxers) for rating securities, they admitted in sworn testimony they did not understand!

This sordid tale has no end. According to Bloomberg, S&P is giving its self-coveted triple AAA rating to junk,

"Standard & Poor's is giving a higher rating to securities backed by subprime home loans, the same type of investments that led to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, than it assigns the U.S. government.
S&P is poised to provide AAA grades to 59 percent of Springleaf Mortgage Loan Trust 2011-1, a set of bonds tied to $497 million lent to homeowners with below-average credit scores and almost no equity in their properties."
[4]


A spokesperson for S&P when asked about why it would give its higher rating of triple AAA yet again to subprime securities repackaged by many of the scions of AIG and Goldman that participated in causing the Credit Crisis and profited from its bailout simply stated, "We believe our ultimate success will be driven by the value investors derive from our ratings and analysis."
However, it is not honest, however much one is paid, to issue a triple AAA rating to what Bloomberg calls,

"More than 14,000 securitized bonds in the U.S. are rated AAA by S&P, backed by everything from houses and malls to auto- dealer loans and farm-equipment leases, according to data compiled by Bloomberg,"

and not the United States of America.

Relatively speaking

Size matters. Pension funds and many of the largest institutional investors have rules about what investments they may invest in and these rules are based on the ratings given to investments by the credit ratings agencies. Consider that Australia, Andorra, Bermuda, Canada, Cook Islands, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hong Kong, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom retain their triple-A ratings.[5] These countries represent less than 21% of the world's collective GDP...my math may be slightly off. If investment funds were limited to investing in triple-A products, it would be preposterous to think that less than 21% of the economy of the world would fund the remaining 79%.

Another weakness of the credit ratings agencies is that there is no set standard employed for measuring absolute risk. What I mean by absolute risk is the measure in gambling parlance, of the risk of ruin. Wall Street and regulators have, in the example of a bank lets say, no better way other than asking for capital ratios to ascertain a bank's risk or ruin. Other factors, like the value of assets and counterparty transactions lack still, even in 2012, transparency.

Because the credit ratings agencies share this problem of being unable to objectively ascertain absolute risk, they lag the markets' own detections of absolute and relative risk. For example, the agencies did not foresee the Latin American debt crises, the European debt crisis, AIG, the Credit Crisis, Enron, Worldcom, or even MF Global. In this sense, credit ratings agencies look backwards better than they can look ahead. Arguably, there are extremely few economists or market participants that can look ahead-this may be a wholly unfair criticism...except this is part of the reason for having the ratings agencies.

The most obvious problems with the existing regulatorily instituted regime of three credit ratings agencies is that they have no competition, no real accountability because they have to be utilized even when wrong, and no liability. This oligopoly ought to be dismantled and the private sector should be allowed to get into the ratings game in the same way that analysts exists in the financial markets for every other type of investment. Doing so would eliminate the existing conflicts of interests within the credit ratings agencies and allow investors to pay the private ratings agencies for their research. Competition will have to drive the caliber of research and ratings upward.

Sadly, nothing in the gargantuan 2,300 page Dodd-Frank Act or that has been discussed in the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs addresses the problems with the credit ratings agencies...the same ones that contributed to our recent financial crisis.@

R. Tamara de Silva

Chicago, Illinois
January 17, 2012

R. Tamara de Silva is an independent trader and securities lawyer

Footnotes:
1. The EFSF's ratings are derived from its backers and France and Austria were two of the largest guarantors behind Germany. S&P's downgrade of the EFSF will mean the fund has 440 billion less in Euros than before the downgrade.
2. These numbers are adjusted by PPP (purchasing power parity), basis-this takes into account, relative cost of living and inflation rates, rather than just exchange rates.
3. There are other risks like inflation risk (the principal returned on a debt instrument upon maturity would have less purchasing power) and currency risk (the Dollar could as it has, decline in value relative to other currencies).
4. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-08-31/subprime-mortgage-bonds-getting-aaa-rating-s-p-denies-to-u-s-treasuries.html
5. http://www.standardandpoors.com/ratings/sovereigns/ratings-list/en/us?sectorName=null&subSectorCode=39&filter=E