The use of the term NRSRO began in 1975 when the SEC promulgated rules regarding bank and broker-dealer net capital requirements (17 C.F.R. 240.15c3-1). The idea is that banks and other financial institutions should not need to 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 commercial paper from very stable companies. The safety of these securities, under this approach, is reflected in their credit ratings, as determined by certain highly respected CRAs. In the early 1980s, there were seven NRSROs, but, due to mergers, this number dropped to three during the 1990s. Recently, the SEC, arguably as a result of political pressure and/or concern about concentration in the industry, added to this number, first with Dominion Bond Rating Service (DBRS, a Canadian CRA) in 2003, and A.M. Best (highly regarded in particular for its ratings of insurance firms) in 2005. In 2007, the SEC added two Japanese rating agencies, Japan Credit Rating Agency, Ltd. and Ratings and Investment Information, Inc. and a Philadelphia area based firm Egan-Jones Rating Company (EJR).
Originally, the SEC did not adopt specific standards for determining which credit rating agencies were "nationally recognized", and instead addressed the question on a case-by-case basis. NRSRO recognition was granted by the SEC through a "No Action Letter" sent by the SEC staff. Under 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 determined that this was the case, it would send a letter to the CRA indicating that if a regulated entity were to rely on the CRA's ratings, the SEC staff would not recommend enforcement action against that entity. These "No Action" letters were made public and could be relied upon by other regulated entities, not just the entity making the original request. The SEC later sought to further define the criteria it uses when making this assessment, and in March 2005 published a proposed regulation to this effect. According to the SEC:
- The single most important factor in the Commission staff’s assessment of NRSRO status is whether the rating agency is “nationally recognized” in the United States as an issuer of credible and reliable ratings by the predominant users of securities ratings. The staff also reviews the operational capability and reliability of each rating organization. Included within this assessment are: (1) the organizational structure of the rating organization; (2) the rating organization’s financial resources (to determine, among other things, whether it is able to operate independently of economic pressures or control from the companies it rates); (3) the size and quality of the rating organization’s staff (to determine if the entity is capable of thoroughly and competently evaluating an issuer’s credit); (4) the rating organization’s independence from the companies it rates; (5) the rating organization’s rating procedures (to determine whether it has systematic procedures designed to produce credible and accurate ratings); and (6) whether the rating organization has internal procedures to prevent the misuse of nonpublic information and whether those procedures are followed. The staff also recommends that the agency become registered as an investment adviser.
In 2006, following criticism that the SEC's "No Action letter" approach was simultaneously too opaque and provided the SEC with too little regulatory oversight of NRSROs, the U.S. Congress passed the Credit Rating Agency Reform Act of 2006, Pub.L. 109-291, 120 Stat. 1327, enacted September 29, 2006. This law required the SEC to establish clear guidelines for determining which credit rating agencies qualify as NRSROs. It also gives the SEC the power to regulate NRSRO internal processes regarding record-keeping and how they guard against conflicts of interest, and makes the NRSRO determination subject to a Commission vote (rather than an SEC staff determination). Notably, however, the law specifically prohibits the SEC from regulating an NRSRO's rating methodologies. In June 2007, the SEC promulgated new regulations that implemented the provisions of the Credit Rating Agency Reform Act. In February 2009, the SEC promulgated amended regulations designed to address concerns about the integrity of the process by which NRSROs rate structured finance products, particularly mortgage related securities.
Since 2010, there have also been changes in laws and regulations due to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010.
Read more about this topic: Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organization
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