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The Last Mystery of the Financial Crisis

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Rhinebridge, cheyne and a hell of a lot of other subprime investments ultimately blew to smithereens, taking with them vast amounts of cash – 40 percent of the world's wealth was wiped out in the aftermath of the mortgage bubble, according to some estimates. 2008 was to the American economy what 9/11 was to national security. Yet while 9/11 prompted the U.S. government to tear up half the Constitution in the name of public safety, after 2008, authorities went in the other direction. If you can imagine a post-9/11 scenario where there were no metal detectors at airports and people could walk on carrying chain saws and meat cleavers, you get a rough idea of what was done to reform the ratings process.

Specifically, very little was done to change the way AAA ratings are created – the "issuer pays" model still exists, and the "Big Three" retain roughly the same market share. An effort by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken to change the compensation model through a new approach under which agencies would be assigned to rate new issues through a government agency passed overwhelmingly in the Senate, but in the House it was relegated to a study by the SEC – which released its findings last year, calling for . . . more study. "The conflict of interest still exists in the exact same way," says a frustrated Franken.

The companies by now are all the way back in black. In 2012, for instance, Moody's profits soared 22 percent, to $1.18 billion. McGraw-Hill, the parent company of Standard & Poor's, scored $437 million in profits last year, with the rating business accounting for 70 percent of the company's profits.

In February, the Obama Justice Department, in an action that seems belated, filed a $5 billion civil suit against Standard & Poor's, drawing upon some of the same data and documents that were part of the Cheyne and Rhinebridge suits. As part of that action, high-ranking officials at S&P were interviewed by government investigators and admitted that they had shaded their ratings methodologies to protect market share. In this deposition of Richard Gugliada, head of S&P's CDO operations, the government asks why the company was slow to implement updates to its model for evaluating CDOs:

Q: Is it fair to say that Standard & Poor's goal of preserving an increasing market share and profits from ratings fees influence the development of the updates to the CDO evaluator?

A: In part, correct.

Q: The main reason to avoid a reduction in the noninvestment grade ratings business was to preserve S&P's market share in that category, correct?

A: Correct.

Years after the crash, it's a little insulting to see industry analysts blithely copping under oath to having traded science for market share, especially since the companies continue to protest to the contrary in public. Contacted for this story, Moody's and S&P insisted many of the documents in this case were simply taken out of context, and that their analysis throughout has been rigorous, objective and independent.

It's a thin defense, but it's holding – for now. McGraw-Hill stock plunged nearly 14 percent when news of the Justice Department suit leaked, and dropped nearly 19 percent for February, but has since regained much of its value – its stock rose nearly 16 percent in March and April, as markets reacted favorably to, among other things, its recent settlement of the Cheyne and Rhinebridge suits. The markets clearly think the ratings agencies will survive.

What's amazing about this is that even without a mass of ugly documentary evidence proving their incompetence and corruption, these firms ought to be out of business. Even if they just accidentally sucked this badly, that should be enough to persuade the markets to look to a different model, different companies, different ratings methodologies.

But we know now that it was no accident. What happened to the ratings agencies during the financial crisis, and what is likely still happening within their walls, is a phenomenon as old as business itself. Given a choice between money and integrity, they took the money. Which wouldn't be quite so bad if they weren't in the integrity business.

This story is from the July 4 - July 18, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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ABOUT THIS BLOG

Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.

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