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Viewpoints: should ratings agencies be responsible for inaccurate ratings?

Investors around the world use ratings from agencies like S&P, Moody and Fitch to make investment decisions. But if all goes wrong, are the agencies to blame? EPA/Ian Langsdon

One of the world’s largest ratings agency, Standard & Poor’s, is back in court appealing the Federal Court’s landmark decision that it was responsible for the losses incurred by 13 New South Wales councils.

The local councils made losses on investments in complex instruments that had S&P’s coveted AAA rating. But the company told the ABC it was “not responsible for investment decisions and investors need to do their own analysis”.

In this Viewpoints, Binoy Kampmark argues investors should know ratings aren’t guarantees on risk; while Gail Pearson makes the case that investors expect the ratings to have a reasonable basis.

Binoy Kampmark: The question here is one of accountability, and what generates it. These are both ethical and legal questions. Credit rating agencies pride themselves on setting measurements about the financial health of assets, and more broadly, of a financial system.

These can have considerable economic impacts, none of which directly affect the ratings agency in question.

During the global financial crisis it became clear that these financial assessments were made without oversight. But is relying on these assessments without due diligence irresponsible in its own right?

It was clear that the credit mechanism being used in this case – the Constant Proportion Debt Obligation notes (CPDOs) – was unstable. Even economists at the US Federal Reserve admitted as much.

That these local councils were relying on just these assessments as statements of fact rather than assertions of opinion should itself be a cause for concern.

Gail Pearson: The issue of the reliance of the local councils is very important. But what were they relying on? They were relying on the expertise of their investment adviser – who was not the ratings agency – and they were also relying on the AAA rating given by the ratings agency.

I’m not sure about Binoy’s distinction between opinion and fact. The local councils knew there was risk in investing. They knew that there was a potential for loss. So they were relying on an assessment by the ratings agencies about the nature of that risk.

Part of the question is whether they were in a position to assess the risk of these very complex products for themselves. They weren’t.

It seems there was nothing in the documentation they received that indicated the extent of the risk. Assessment of investment risk is highly complex and technical. This is why investors rely on ratings agencies.

In any case, the distinction between fact and opinion is not very helpful to those who provide opinions that are not based on reasonable grounds.

We have, in Australia, a very well developed jurisprudence around the prohibition on conduct that is misleading or deceptive or likely to mislead or deceive. This prohibition exists in a number of pieces of legislation.

You fail to live up to this norm of conduct if you express an opinion without reasonable grounds for that opinion. If investors rely on the opinion of those who provide investment advice or those who grade an investment product, they are entitled to assume that the persons providing that opinion have a reasonable basis for what they are saying.

So the question comes back to whether ratings agencies, when they provide a particular rating, have a reasonable basis for saying that it has three gold stars or none.

It is not unlike ratings given in other contexts – think hats for restaurants or stars on travel websites. There must be a reasonable basis for the opinion. That was the issue here.

Binoy Kampmark: Gail makes the vital point on reliance. What were the local councils relying on? Advice from investment advisors, and the AAA rating from S&P.

It is true that opinion matters, and that opinion can then cause the person investing to rely upon it. In that sense, an opinion or a fact is one of those fabulously opaque areas of legal deliberation.

But we should be careful that, in so doing, we are not painting the councils involved as vulnerable and entirely at the mercy of an S&P rating.

While the entire business of ratings is shoddy, they are not, in the words of S&P’s disclaimer, “statements of fact or recommendations to buy, hold, or sell any securities or make any other investment decisions”.

There may be more to be said about the specific parties who marketed the CPDOs and gave undertakings about their reliable value. That would just be patently silly, but it does happen in the world of finance.

The assessment of investment risk is highly complex. But converting assessments into guarantees is as reliable as astrology.

We can choose to pay for those services, but we cannot hope that those predictions will come true. There are simply too many factors at stake.

The law on deceptive conduct is highly developed in Australian commercial law, but there are also instances where a person was irresponsible to be deceived in the first place.

Public bodies like local councils, using the money of ratepayers, must also be wary of the sorts of investments they seek.

The financial crisis, with its revelations of the risk in highly complex investment structures, showed how flawed government and private institutions could be in their decisions. S&P’s ratings work is but a symptom of that culture.

Gail Pearson: But were the local councils irresponsible? It is easy to say in retrospect when they lost a lot of money that they did not do the right thing.

The local councils did understand that they were investing in a product with risk. They believed they were receiving sound advice from a trusted advisor and that this advice was reliable as it was linked to a rating from one of the world’s leading bodies that rates risk in investment products.

To say they were irresponsible might be to say that we can never trust or rely on any expert of whatever kind – very hard in most contexts.

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