Credit Rating Agency - Uses of Ratings - Ratings Use By Government Regulators

Ratings Use By Government Regulators

Further information: Nationally recognized statistical rating organization

Regulators use credit ratings as well, or permit ratings to be used for regulatory purposes. For example, under the Basel II agreement of the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, banking regulators can allow banks to use credit ratings from certain approved CRAs (called "ECAIs", or "External Credit Assessment Institutions") when calculating their net capital reserve requirements. In the United States, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) permits investment banks and broker-dealers to use credit ratings from "Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations" (NRSRO) for similar purposes. The idea is that banks and other financial institutions should not need keep in reserve the same amount of capital to protect the institution against (for example) a run on the bank, if the financial institution is heavily invested in highly liquid and very "safe" securities (such as U.S. government bonds or short-term commercial paper from very stable companies).

CRA ratings are also used for other regulatory purposes as well. The US SEC, for example, permits certain bond issuers to use a shortened prospectus form when issuing bonds if the issuer is older, has issued bonds before, and has a credit rating above a certain level. SEC regulations also require that money market funds (mutual funds that mimic the safety and liquidity of a bank savings deposit, but without Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation insurance) comprise only securities with a very high NRSRO rating. Likewise, insurance regulators use credit ratings to ascertain the strength of the reserves held by insurance companies.

In 2008, the US SEC voted unanimously to propose amendments to its rules that would remove credit ratings as one of the conditions for companies seeking to use short-form registration when registering securities for public sale.

This marks the first in a series of upcoming SEC proposals in accordance with Dodd-Frank to remove references to credit ratings contained within existing Commission rules and replace them with alternative criteria.

Under both Basel II and SEC regulations, not just any CRA's ratings can be used for regulatory purposes. (If this were the case, it would present a moral hazard). Rather, there is a vetting process of varying sorts. The Basel II guidelines (paragraph 91, et al.), for example, describe certain criteria that bank regulators should look to when permitting the ratings from a particular CRA to be used. These include "objectivity," "independence," "transparency," and others. Banking regulators from a number of jurisdictions have since issued their own discussion papers on this subject, to further define how these terms will be used in practice. (See The Committee of European Banking Supervisors Discussion Paper, or the State Bank of Pakistan ECAI Criteria).

In the United States, since 1975, NRSRO recognition has been granted through a "No Action Letter" sent by the SEC staff. Following this approach, if a CRA (or investment bank or broker-dealer) were interested in using the ratings from a particular CRA for regulatory purposes, the SEC staff would research the market to determine whether ratings from that particular CRA are widely used and considered "reliable and credible." If the SEC staff determines that this is the case, it sends a letter to the CRA indicating that if a regulated entity were to rely on the CRA's ratings, the SEC staff will not recommend enforcement action against that entity. These "No Action" letters are made public and can be relied upon by other regulated entities, not just the entity making the original request. The SEC has since sought to further define the criteria it uses when making this assessment, and in March 2005 published a proposed regulation to this effect.

On September 29, 2006, US President George W. Bush signed into law the Credit Rating Reform Act of 2006. This law requires the US Securities and Exchange Commission to clarify how NRSRO recognition is granted, eliminates the "No Action Letter" approach and makes NRSRO recognition a Commission (rather than SEC staff) decision, and requires NRSROs to register with, and be regulated by, the SEC. S & P protested the Act on the grounds that it is an unconstitutional violation of freedom of speech. In the Summer of 2007 the SEC issued regulations implementing the act, requiring rating agencies to have policies to prevent misuse of nonpublic information, disclosure of conflicts of interest and prohibitions against "unfair practices".

Recognizing CRAs' role in capital formation, some governments have attempted to jump-start their domestic rating-agency businesses with various kinds of regulatory relief or encouragement. This may, however, be counterproductive, if it dulls the market mechanism by which agencies compete, subsidizing less-capable agencies and penalizing agencies that devote resources to higher-quality opinions.

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