The Truth About Egan-Jones
... but not from us: after all we are known for being biased, which in the mainstream media parlance means calling it like it is. No - instead we leave it to none other than Bloomberg's Jonathan Weil who does as good a job of being "biased" as we ever could: "Egan-Jones, which has been in business since 1992, could have continued operating as an independent publisher of ratings and analysis, not subject to government oversight or control. Instead it chose to play within the Big Three’s system, exposing itself to regulation and the whims of the SEC in exchange for the government’s imprimatur. Now it’s paying the price." And not only that: as the most recent example of Spain just shows, where Egan Jones downgraded Spain 9 days ago and was ignored, but well ahead of everyone else, only to be piggybacked by S&P, and the whole world flipping out, it has become clear: calling out reality, and the fools that populate it, is becoming not only a dangerous game, but increasingly more illegal. Then again - this is not the first time we have seen just this happen in broad daylight, with nobody daring to say anything about it. In fact, this phenomenon tends to be a rather traditional side-effect of every declining superpower. Such as the case is right now...
From BBG's Jon Weil:
The first time I wrote about Sean Egan and his small, independent credit-research firm, Egan-Jones Ratings Co., was in December 2007 for a column about the bond insurer MBIA Inc. (MBI) And man, did he nail it.
The three big credit raters -- Moody’s Investors Service, Standard & Poor’s, and Fitch Ratings -- all had AAA ratings on MBIA’s insurance unit, their highest grade. Egan said it deserved much lower. Anyone reading MBIA’s financial reports could see the company was losing money and needed billions of dollars of fresh capital.
By mid-2008, the Big Three had cut their ratings. Once again, Egan, a lonely voice of reason who saw the financial crisis coming, had shown his larger competitors to be incompetent or compromised. It was one of many great calls to come for Egan-Jones. As for MBIA, which had no revenue last quarter, it’s still struggling.
So if you had told me back then that the Securities and Exchange Commission’s enforcement division more than four years later would be accusing Egan, and his firm, of securities-law violations -- but not any of the big rating companies -- there’s no way I would have believed you. That’s what happened this week, though.
Join The Club
In 2010, the SEC issued an investigative report that said a Moody’s rating committee in 2007 knowingly decided to keep inflated ratings on about $1 billion of complex notes after discovering an error in one of the firm’s models. Later in 2007, Moody’s applied to the SEC for national recognition, under the same 2006 federal law on credit raters that Egan-Jones saw as its chance to join the same club as the Big Three.
The rating process used by Moody’s in that instance violated the policies described in the company’s application, the SEC said. However, the report said the agency decided not to accuse Moody’s of violating any laws, because some of the conduct occurred outside the U.S., presenting jurisdictional hurdles. Lucky break, I guess.
Egan-Jones isn’t the only credit rater where the SEC has identified problems related to employees’ investments. In a report last September, the SEC’s staff said it found that “each of the three larger NRSROs and four of the smaller NRSROs appeared to have some weaknesses with respect to their employee securities ownership policies and procedures.” (In September 2010, the SEC reached a settlement with another small credit- ratings company, Lace Financial Corp., over allegations of misstatements in its application for SEC recognition.)
The way Congress and the SEC have rigged this game, nationally recognized credit raters are a unique species of opinion merchants, endowed with sweeping authority and special privileges. Institutional money managers often are required by law to abide by their judgments. The better approach would be to scrap the designation, so investors are encouraged to do their own homework, rather than use credit ratings mindlessly.
Egan-Jones, which has been in business since 1992, could have continued operating as an independent publisher of ratings and analysis, not subject to government oversight or control. Instead it chose to play within the Big Three’s system, exposing itself to regulation and the whims of the SEC in exchange for the government’s imprimatur. Now it’s paying the price.
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