COVID-19 UPDATE: We're Open and Ready to Serve Our ClientsLearn More Here

Articles Posted in Fitch

Even though Puerto Rico’s debt has been downgraded to “junk” status by the three major ratings agencies (Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s, and Fitch Ratings), OppenheimerFunds (OPY) has increased its holding of Puerto Rican debt in two of its municipal bond funds that carry lower risk. The credit raters downgraded the US Commonwealth over worries about its failing economy and decreased ability to finance its deficits in capital markets.

According to Reuters, Lipper Inc. says that at the end of last year, the Oppenheimer Rochester Short-Term Municipal Fund’s (ORSCX) exposure to Puerto Rico’s debt had risen 13% from a year ago, while its Intermediate-Term Municipal Fund more than doubled its exposure to 17%. (Details of the holdings in both funds since then are still unavailable.) Both have a 5% limit on how much junk-rated debt they can contain. However, because the US territory’s debt was downgraded after the buys were made, Oppenheimer, which is part of MassMutual Financial Group, may not obligated to unload the assets.

The company has continued to support Puerto Rico municipal bonds, even as a lot of other mutual fund firms have lowered their exposure to Puerto Rico debt. This week, Oppenheimer downplayed the investment risk involved, noting that most bonds involved are insured (Reuters reports that 27% of the holdings in the intermediate-fund and another 4% in the short-term fund, do not have insurance).

Liquidators are suing Moody’s Investors Service (MCO), Standard & Poor’s, and Fitch Ratings over their issuing of allegedly fraudulent and inflated ratings for the securities belonging to two offshore Bear Stearns (BSC) hedge funds. The plaintiffs are seeking $1.12 billion.

The credit raters are accused of misrepresenting their autonomy, the timeliness of their residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) ratings, and the quality of their models. Because of the purportedly tainted ratings for securities that were supposedly “high-grade,” the funds lost $1.12B.

The funds, which were operated by Matthew Tannin and Ralph Cioffi, failed in 2007. The US government later pursued the two men for securities fraud, but they were acquitted. They did, however, settle an SEC securities case over related allegations last year.

Evergreen Investment Management Co. LLC and related entities have consented to pay $25 million to settle a class action securities settlement involving plaintiff investors who contend that the Evergreen Ultra Short Opportunities Fund was improperly marketed and sold to them. The plaintiffs, which include five institutional investors, claim that between 2005 and 2008 the defendants presented the fund as “stable” and providing income in line with “preservation of capital and low principal fluctuation” when actually it was invested in highly risky, volatile, and speculative securities, including mortgage-backed securities. Evergreen is Wachovia’s investment management business and part of Wells Fargo (WFC).

The plaintiffs claim that even after the MBS market started to fail, the Ultra Short Fund continued to invest in these securities, while hiding the portfolio’s decreasing value by artificially inflating the individual securities’ asset value in its portfolio. They say that they sustained significant losses when Evergreen liquidated the Ultra Short Fund four years ago after the defendants’ alleged scam collapsed. By settling, however, no one is agreeing to or denying any wrongdoing.

Meantime, seeking to generally move investors’ claims forward faster, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority has launched a pilot arbitration program that will specifically deal with securities cases of $10 million and greater. The program was created because of the growing number of very big cases.

According to California Superior Court Judge Richard Kramer Fitch Inc., Standard and Poor’s parent (MHP) McGraw-Hill Companies Inc., Fitch, Inc., and Moody’s Corp. (MCO), were merely exercising their First Amendment right to free speech when they gave their highest rating to three structured investment vehicles (SIVs) that collapsed when the mortgage market failed in 2008 and 2007. The ruling, in California Public Employees’ Retirement System v. Moody’s Corp. now leaves the plaintiffs with a steep burden of proof. The plaintiff, the largest pension fund in the US, is seeking more than $1 billion in securities fraud damages stemming from the inaccurate subprime ratings.

Per the securities complaint, CAlPERS is accusing the defendants of publishing ratings that were “unreasonably high” and “wildly inaccurate” and applying “seriously flawed” methods in an “incompetent” manner. The plaintiff contends that the high ratings that were given to the SIVs contributed to their collapse during the economic crisis.

BNA was able to get court transcripts that indicate that the ruling came on a motion under California’s anti- Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) statute, which offers a special procedure to strike a complaint involving the rights of free speech and petition. If a defendant persuades the court that the cause of action came from a protected activity, the plaintiff must prove that the claims deserve additional consideration. Now CalPERS must show a “probability of prevailing.”

Under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, there is no longer any protection from private litigation for ratings agency misstatements. Now, an investor only has to prove gross negligence to win the case. However, per Wayne State University Law School Peter Henning, in BNA Securities Daily, Dodd-Frank’s provision may not carry much weight if a ratings agency’s First Amendment rights are widely interpreted.

Shepherd Smith Edwards & Kantas LTD LLP Founder and Stockbroker fraud lawyer William Shepherd had this to say: “There have long been many restrictions on ‘speech,’ including life threats, trademarks, defamation, conspiracy, treason and threats of blackmail. But the age-old standard restriction is ‘you can’t shout fire in a crowded theater.’ The reason is that strangers might rely on the words and be injured by your ‘speech.’ How is this different than shouting ‘AAA- rated,’ knowing that strangers will rely on the words and be harmed by this ‘speech?’ The difference is that Wall Street can say anything it wants, while the rest of us have to just sit down and shut up.”

CalPERS has until March 18, 2011 to respond to the court.

Related Web Resources:
Ratings by Moody’s, Fitch, S&P Ruled to Be Protected Speech, BusinessWeek, December 11, 2010

Calpers Sues Rating Companies Over $1 Billion Loss, Bloomberg, July 15, 2010

CalPERS

California Public Employees’ Retirement System v. Moody’s Corp., Justia Dockets

Calif. Court Concludes Credit Ratings Entitled to First Amendment Protection, BNA Securities Law Daily, December 10, 2010

Credit Ratings Agencies, Stockbroker Fraud Blog

California Anti-SLAPP Project

Continue Reading ›

A superior court judge has turned down Standard & Poor’s motion to dismiss Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal’s lawsuit against it. Blumenthal, who filed companion complaints against Moody’s Corp, and Fitch Inc., is accusing the credit rating agency of issuing artificially low ratings to municipalities. He claims that this ended up costing taxpayers millions of dollars in unnecessary bond insurance and high interest rates.

S & P’s parent company McGraw-Hills Cos. had moved to dismiss for improper venue by claiming that a mandatory exclusive forum provision in the S&P Terms and Conditions barred the case from being filed in Connecticut. McGraw-Hills argued that the internal laws of the State of New York are supposed to govern the agreement and that the courts there are to serve as the exclusive forums for any disputes stemming from the agreement.

Superior Court Judge Robert Shapiro, however, denied the motion to dismiss. He said that under the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act, the state has a number of sovereign powers and that one of them lets the commission of consumer protection request that the state’s attorney general enforce CUTPA in state superior court.

Blumenthal called Shapiro’s decision a victory, while saying that credit rating agencies will likely continue to avoid being held accountable for misconduct. Meantime, a spokesperson for S & P told BNA last month that the lawsuit against the credit ratings agency has no factual merit.

The ratings lawsuits against Moody’s, S & P, and Fitch will now go forward in state court.

Related Web Resources:
Ratings case against S&P to proceed, MarketWatch, August 21, 2010

Richard Blumenthal, CT AG, Sues Moody’s, S&P, Says They Knowingly Falsified Debt Ratings, Huffington Post, March 10, 2010

Continue Reading ›

House Financial Services subcommittee chair Paul Kanjorski introduced a new draft bill that proposes making credit ratings agencies collectively liable for inaccuracies. The agencies received a lot of heat when they failed to properly warn investors about the risks associated with subprime mortgage securities before the market fell.

One problem with the current system is that the firms issuing the securities are the ones paying the credit ratings agencies for rating the securities. Kanjorski’s draft bill lets investors pursue lawsuits against credit rating agencies that recklessly or intentionally did not examine key data to determine the ratings. He says that collective liability could compel the ratings agencies to provide reliable, quality ratings while providing the proper incentive for them to monitor each other.

Critics of the plan, including Republicans and industry executives, warned that collective liability could result in a slew of expensive complaints while decreasing competition even more in an industry that Fitch Ratings, Moody’s Investors Services, and Standard and Poor’s already dominate.

The Boilermaker-Blacksmith National Pension Trust is suing a number of investment banks, credit rating agencies, and underwriters, including Wells Fargo, WFASC, Morgan Stanley & Co., Credit Suisse Securities (USA) LLC, Barclays Capital Inc., Bear Stearns & Co., Countrywide Securities Corp., Deutsche Bank Securities Inc., JPMorgan Chase Inc., Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Global Markets Inc., McGraw-Hill Cos., Moody’s Investor Services Inc., and Fitch Ratings Inc., over allegations that they made false statements in the prospectus and registration statement for certificates that were collateralized by Wells Fargo Bank, NA. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of thousands of investors that bought the certificates from Wells Fargo Asset Securities Corp., accuses the defendants of violating the 1933 Securities Act by engaging in these alleged actions.

According to the securities fraud lawsuit, the defendants concealed from investors that Wells Fargo revised its underwriting practices in 2005 and became involved in high risk subprime mortgage lending. The complaint contends that WFASC and a number of defendants submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commision prospectus and registration statements representing that the mortgages were backed by certificates that were subject to specific underwriting guidelines for evaluating a borrower’s creditworthiness. The plaintiffs contend that these prospectuses and registration statements were false because they neglected to reveal that the Wells Fargo-originated certificates were not in accordance with the credit, underwriting, and appraisal standards that Wells Fargo, per the companies, had supposedly used to approve mortgages.

The lawsuit also claims that because Wells Fargo decided to enter the subprime mortgage mortgage market in 2005, the investment bank had to take significant write-downs in 2008 because of its massive exposure to the subprime market and the WFASC certificates that these mortgages backed dropped significantly in value. The Boiler-Blaksmith fund reports that it lost about $5 million, which is more than half of what it invested.

Related Web Resources:
Read the Complaint

The Boilermakers National Funds
Continue Reading ›

At a hearing presided over by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in Washington DC, the executives of Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s, and Fitch Ratings, the three top credit rating agencies in the country, were grilled about how their assignment of high ratings to mortgage-backed securities, while drastically underestimating their risks, contributed to the current financial crisis.

While the heads of the country’s three leading credit agencies-Standard and Poor’s Deven Sherman, Fitch Ratings’s Stephen W. Joynt, and Moody’s Raymond W. McDaniel-have called the mortgage-backed securities collapse “unprecedented” and “unanticipated and said that any errors the agencies’ made were unintentional, internal documents reveal that the credit rating agencies knew that the ratings they were giving the securities were overvalued. It wasn’t until this past year, when homeowners began defaulting on subprime mortgages, that the credit ratings agencies began downgrading thousands of the securities.

Lawmakers are trying to determine whether the firms’ business model contributed to the conflicts of interests. Issuers pay the credit ratings agencies for evaluating securities. While the credit ratings agencies were giving mortgage-backed securities high ratings, the heads of the three leading credit agencies were earning $80 million in compensation.

At the hearing, former Moody’s credit policy managing director Jerome S. Fons testified that the agencies’ business model prevents analysts from placing investor interests before the firms’ interests. In one confidential document obtained by investigators, Moody’s CEO McDaniels is quoted as saying that bankers, investors and creditors regularly “pitched” the credit ratings agency. According to Frank L. Raiter, the former head of residential mortgage-backed securities ratings at Standard and Poor’s, “Profits were running the show.”

Investors depend on the credit rating agencies for independent evaluations. According to Congressman Waxman, the ratings agencies “broke this bond of trust,” while federal regulators failed to heed the red flags and protect investors.

Related Web Resources:

Credit Rating Agency Heads Grilled by Lawmakers, New York Times, October 22, 2008
Oversight Committee Hearing on Credit Rating Agencies and the Financial Crisis, Polfeeds.com, October 22, 2008
Committee on Oversight and Government Reform
Continue Reading ›

Contact Information