Moody’s Hit With $864M Penalty For Role In Mortgage Meltdown

Image courtesy of Alec Tabak

While much of the anger surrounding the mortgage meltdown was focused on shady mortgage lenders and investment banks, a less-discussed but nonetheless culpable party were the credit-rating agencies that rubber-stamped mortgage-backed securities that were sometimes worth about as much as a used lottery ticket.

In a late-Friday afternoon news dump (before a three-day weekend for the stock market, no less), the Justice Department and attorneys general for 21 states (and don’t forget D.C.) announced a settlement with Moody’s Analytics worth around $864 million, resolving a federal investigation into the company’s complicity in the massive financial crisis.

At the heart of the DOJ investigation were allegations that Moody’s was gave overly positive ratings to mortgage-backed securities and other financial products out of fear that providing honest ratings would result in banks and lenders taking their business elsewhere.

Even though Moody’s has long acknowledged that there is an inherent conflict of interest in being paid by the same financial institutions that are asking you to rate their securities, the company maintained throughout the bubble era that its ratings were based primarily on expected loss and probability of default.

“Investors relied on Moody’s credit ratings to be objective and independent, and they naturally expected Moody’s to follow its own published methods,” says Benjamin Mizer, head of the DOJ’s Civil Division.

However, the DOJ investigation into these ratings concluded that Moody’s was not living up to its own promise to provide accurate feedback on these securities.

“Moody’s failed to adhere to its own credit rating standards and fell short on its pledge of transparency in the run-up to the Great Recession,” said Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General Bill Baer in a statement.

According to the DOJ, Moody’s has admitted to failing to disclose to the public that it deviated from its own standards. As a result, investors were misled into believing that these securities were low-risk.

The problem began as far back as 2001, when Moody’s started using an internal tool for rating mortgage-backed securities that did not incorporate the company’s own rating standards and would not rate these securities below a certain high level.

The investigation turned up an internal communication at Moody’s from 2007, where a senior manager in Moody’s Asset Finance Group pointed out that their research showed that these mortgage-backed security ratings “are 4 notches off.”

The DOJ also found that many of the banks and lenders involved were apparently aware that Moody’s was using an overly lenient ratings standard. All the while, Moody’s did not reveal any of these changes to its ratings models or standards to the public.

In addition to a whole bunch of “we promise we’ll never do it again” compliance measures (for five years only), Moody’s has agreed to pay a $437.5 million federal civil penalty to the DOJ. The remaining $426.3 million will be divvied up among the 21 states (and D.C.) Those states are Arizona, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Washington.

Moody’s $864 million total payout is significant, but pales in comparison to penalties paid by others involved in the mortgage meltdown. In 2015, Moody’s competitor Standard & Poor’s had to pay $1.5 billion to close the book on similar allegations.

For its part, Moody’s maintains this is no big thing and the settlement is a solid business decision.

“After careful consideration, Moody’s determined that the agreement, which removes significant legacy legal risk and avoids costs and uncertainty associated with continued investigations and litigations, is in the best interest of the company and its shareholders,” reads a statement from the company. “Moody’s stands behind the integrity of its ratings, methodologies and processes, and the settlement contains no finding of any violation of law, nor any admission of liability.”

Some lawmakers, like Sen. Al Franken (MN) have been highly critical of the apparent conflicts of interest in the credit-rating business. In order to take away the threat of losing business over a subpar rating, he has suggested creating an independent agency overseen by the Securities and Exchange Commission, that would assign ratings jobs.

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