The Shame of the Ratings Agencies: How Moody’s Blows It Again
By Zachary Karabell, Time Magazine
June 3, 2011
Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s, and Fitch are three of the most powerful actors in the global financial system. Their inability to discern the flimsiness of those “investment grade” mortgage-backed securities between 2006 and 2008 was one reason for the implosion of that system in 2008 when it became apparent that those trillions of dollars of securities and their derivatives were worth a lot less than it seemed. Yet for all the reforms since then, the ratings agencies remain largely untouched.
Add to this yet another issue: the United States debt market of Treasury bonds and bills is one of the anchors of the global economy. The dollar remains the preferred – though not much loved – currency of international commerce. The purchase and sale of U.S. Treasuries is not something the world can halt if Moody’s or S&P or Fitch decide one day that there are credit questions. Until the Chinese yuan or the Brazilian real or the euro or some new synthetic currency replaces the dollar, and until there is a market liquid enough to absorb the trillions now invested in U.S. Treasuries, countries and institutions can’t just shift gears and divest of their U.S. holdings simply because one day ratings agencies decide that they should.
So it is patently ridiculous that these agencies are even in a position to hold court on U.S. creditworthiness. It’s not that their analysis of the challenges and pitfalls is useless: far from it. But it is the degree to which that analysis is supposed to be connected to action, and there is a world of difference between saying that company X is no longer investment grade and saying the same of the United States. At best, such a decision will roil markets and sow confusion; at worst, they will trigger a wave of selling and a race to the bottom that could make the mistakes of the ratings agencies during the financial crisis look small in comparison.
U.S. Treasuries are the world’s reserve currency. They’re currently trading at less than 3% (as Colbert would say- the judgment of the market). To think that any other currency could or would want to absorb the $600 TRILLION notional value of derivatives (1000% of the WORLD GDP) is as foolish as wishing the Sumerians had never invented cuneiform–
Some ten millennia ago the Sumerians began using clay tokens to count their agricultural and manufactured goods. Later they began placing the tokens in large, hollow, clay containers which were sealed; the quantity of tokens in each container came to be expressed by impressing, on the container’s surface, one picture for each instance of the token inside. They next dispensed with the actual tokens, relying solely on symbols for the tokens, drawn on clay surfaces. To avoid making a picture for each instance of the same object (for example: 100 pictures of a hat to represent 100 hats), they ‘counted’ the objects by using various small marks. In this way the Sumerians added “a system for enumerating objects to their incipient system of symbols.” Thus writing began, during the Uruk period c. 3300 BC.