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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.

U.S. District Judge David O. Carter for the Central District of California has turned down Standard & Poor’s bid to have the Justice Department’s $5 billion securities lawsuit against it dismissed. This affirms Carter’s recent tentative ruling earlier on the matter.

S & P is the largest credit rating agency in the world. It is a McGraw Hill Financial Inc. unit.

According to the US government, the credit rater fraudulently misrepresented its ratings process as objective and independent when it was, in fact, stymied from issuing ratings because of its desire to please banks and other clients. Instead, between 2004 and 2007, S & P purportedly issued AAA ratings to certain poor quality mortgage packages, including residential mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations, and subprime mortgage-backed securities. Now, prosecutors want to recover the losses that credit unions and federally insured banks allegedly suffered because of these inaccurate ratings that it contends upped investor demand for the instruments until the prices soared and the market collapsed, contributing to the global economic meltdown that followed.

A U.S. district judge in California has put out a tentative decision in the $5B fraud lawsuit against Standard & Poor’s indicating that he will likely reject a motion to dismiss the civil case against the credit rating agency. Judge David Carter said he needs more time to come up with his final ruling, which is expected on July 15, but for now, he is turning down S & P’s request to toss out the case outright.

Federal prosecutors sued S & P contending that the credit rater chose not to alert investors that the housing market was failing in ‘06 and inflated high-risk mortgage investments’ ratings. The Obama Administration said the ratings agency did not act fast enough to put downgrade a large number of subprime-backed securities despite realizing that home prices were dropping and borrowers were finding it hard to pay back loans. Instead, collateralized debt obligations and mortgage-backed securities continued to receive elevated ratings from the top credit rating agencies, allowing banks to sell trillions of these investments.

Contending that the credit rater committed fraud by making false claims that its ratings were objective, the US Department of Justice wants S & P to pay $5 billion in penalties, The government believes that between 9/04 and 10/07, S & P delayed updating both its ratings criteria and analytical models, which means the requirements were weaker than what analysts say should have been necessary to ensure their accuracy. During this time, S & P credit rated about $1.2 trillion in structured products related to $2.8 trillion worth of mortgage securities and charged up to $750 per rated deal. The government says that this means that S & P saw the investment banks that put out the securities as its primary customers.

In the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC is asking for the dismissal of a US Department of Justice securities fraud lawsuit accusing the ratings firm of knowing that it was issuing faulty ratings to collateralized debt obligations and residential mortgage-backed securities during the financial crisis. S & P is contending that the claims are against judicial precedent and don’t establish wrongdoing.

The government sued the credit rating giant and its parent company McGraw-Hill Companies Inc. (MHP) earlier this year. It claims that S & P took part in a scheme to bilk investors by wrongly representing that its ratings for collateralized debt obligations and residential mortgage backed securities were independent and objective, purposely giving artificially high ratings to specific securities, and ignoring the risks involved. Submitted under the 1989 Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act, this is the first federal legal action filed against a rating agency related to the economic crisis.

Now, however, S & P is arguing that the DOJ’s RMBS lawsuit does not succeed in alleging fraud. The credit rater says that it shouldn’t be blamed for not having been able to foresee the financial crisis of 2008.

The US Department of Justice and has filed civil fraud charges against Standard & Poor’s Ratings Service, contending that credit rating agency’s fraudulent ratings of mortgage bonds played a role in causing the economic crisis. Settlement talks with Justice Department reportedly broke down after the latter indicated that it wanted at least $1 billion. S & P was hoping to pay around $100 million. Also, there was disagreement between both sides as to whether or not the credit rater could agree to settle without having to admit to any wrongdoing.

The securities case against S & P involves over 30 collateralized debt obligations, which were created in 2007 when the housing market was at its height. The government believes that between September 2004 and October 2007 the credit rater disregarded the risks that came along with the investments, giving them too high ratings in the interest of profit and gaining market share. The ratings agency allegedly wanted the large financial firms and others to select it to rate financial instruments. Meantime, S & P continued to tout its ratings as objective, misleading investors as a result. S & P would go on to make record profits, and the complex home loan bundles eventually failed.

Although there have been questions for some time now about the credit ratings agencies’ role in creating a housing bubble, this is the first securities lawsuit brought by the government against one of these firms over the financial crisis. It was in 2010 that a Senate probe revealed that from 2004 to 2007 S & P and Moody’s Investors Service (MC) both applied rating models that were inaccurate, which caused them to fail to predict exactly how well the risky mortgages would do. The lawmakers believed that the credit rating agencies let competition between each other affect how well they did their jobs.

This month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit refused to revive statutory and common law MBS claims made by five Ohio pension funds: The Ohio Police & Fire Pension Fund, the State Teachers Retirement System of Ohio, the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System, the Ohio Public Employees Deferred Compensation Program, and the School Employees Retirement Systems of Ohio. All of them are run by the state for public employees.

Per the court’s opinion, between 2005 and 2008, the funds had invested hundreds of million of dollars in 308 mortgage-backed securities that all were given AAA or the equivalent from one of the three credit rating agencies. When MBS value dropped during this time, the Funds lost about $457 million.

The plaintiffs believe that the reason that they lost their money is because the ratings that were given to the MBS were false and misleading. They filed their Ohio securities lawsuit under the state’s “blue sky ” laws, as well as the common law theory of negligent misrepresentation.

A ruling by the Australian Federal Court against Standard & Poor’s could give 13 NSW councils about A$30M in compensation for their about A$16M in synthetic derivative losses. According to the court, the ratings firm misled investors by giving its highest ratings to complex investment instruments that ended up failing during the worldwide economic crisis. The councils can now claim compensation from S & P and co-defendants Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS)- owned ABN Amro Bank and the Local Government Financial Services, Ltd. The three had sold the councils constant proportion debt obligation notes, promoted as Rembrandt notes, six years ago.

Specifically to this case, Australian Federal Court Justice Jayne Jagot said that Standard & Poor’s took part in conduct that was “deceptive” when it gave AAA ratings to constant proportion debt obligations that were created by ABN Amro Bank NV. The Australian townships were among those that invested what amounted to trillions of dollars in the CPDOs, as well as in collateralized debt obligations.

The projected A$30M in compensation includes not just councils’ losses, but also interest and costs. The councils are also entitled to receive compensation for breach of fiduciary duty from LGFS, which succeeded in its own claim against Standard and Poor’s and ABN Amro for Rembrandt notes that it sold to its parent company after the notes were downgraded from their triple-A rating to triple-B+.

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.

Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services has received a Wells Notice from the Securities and Exchange Commission notifying the credit rating agency that it ma be subject to possible enforcement action over alleged violations of federal securities laws. The allegations involve S & P’s ratings for the Delphinus CDO 2007-1, a collateralized debt obligation.

The $1.6 billion hybrid CDO was downgraded just a few months after it received AAA ratings from both S & P and Moody’s Investor Services—the two biggest credit rating agencies in the country—by the end of 2008 its securities that were rated AAA had been downgraded to junk status. S & P’s parent company McGraw-Hill says that the credit rating agency is cooperating with the Commission’s examination into this matter. If the SEC were to file an enforcement action against S & P, it would be its first one against a credit rating agency for the rating of a mortgage-backed security.

Just today, the SEC staff expressed concern that despite changes that were implemented at credit rating agencies to better their operations, the Commission is still concerned about certain deficiencies. The SEC voiced its concerns in its first yearly report on Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations. Alleged deficiencies include:

• Not always following ratings procedures or methodologies.
• Failure to make accurate and timely disclosures.
• Improper management of conflict of interest.
• Lack of effective internal control structures for the rating process.

The new annual reports was mandated by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection, which is seeking better oversight and regulation of credit rating agencies. 10 credit rating agencies registered as NRSROs were examined. The names of the NRSROs weren’t published.

It was just earlier this year that the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations issued its bipartisan report noting that the most “immediate cause” of the financial crisis three years ago was the “mass ratings downgrades” of securities in 2007 that were made by Moody’s and S & P. Per the report, credit rating agencies were aware that their ratings wouldn’t “hold” and held back on putting up more strict ratings criteria. When they did modify their risk models that noted there were high-risk mortgages being issued, the revised models were not applied to existing securities. All of this allowed investment banks to push out high-risk investments before the tougher criteria were implemented.

Credit ratings changes can impact not just a company’s bond prices but also its stock price. The market can also be impacted.

For the time ever, S & P downgraded the US credit rating a notch lower than AAA. The credit agency expressed concern about the federal government’s ability to take care of its finances. S & P noted that the bipartisan agreement to look for at least $2.1 trillion in budget savings was not enough to quell the nation’s debt in the long run. Now, the SEC is looking into whether news of S & P’s downgrade of the country’s debt was leaked and the info used for trading before it was officially made known.

S&P downgrades U.S. credit rating for first time, Washington Post, August 5, 2011

S.E.C. Faults Credit Raters, but Doesn’t Name Them, NY Times, September 30, 2011

SEC Staff Issues Summary Report of Commission Staff’s Examinations of Each Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organization, SEC, September 30, 2011


More Blog Posts:

Moody’s, Fitch, and Standard and Poor’s Were Exercising Their 1st Amendment Rights When They Gave Inaccurate Subprime Ratings to SIVs, Says Court, Institutional Investment Fraud Blog, December 30, 2010

Standard and Poor’s Ratings Lawsuit to Go Forward, Says Judge, Institutional Investment Fraud Blog, September 16, 2010

SEC’s Handling of Credit Rating Agencies Oversight and Failure to Detect Madoff and Stanford Ponzi Scams Questioned at Senate Appropriations Financial Services Subcommittee, Stockbroker Fraud Blog, May 8, 2010

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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

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