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The Last Mystery of the Financial Crisis

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Ultimately, the analyst committee agreed to give the dubious Mezzanine Notes an A rating, marking the first time these middle-tier investments in a SIV ever received a public A rating. For Wall Street, this was occasion to par-tay. In the summer of 2005, one of the Cheyne hedge-funders sent out a celebratory e-mail to Morgan Stanley execs, bragging about getting the ratings companies to cave. "It is an amazing set of feats to move the rating agencies so far," the hedgie wrote. "We all do all this for one thing and I hope promotions are a given. Let's hope big bonuses are to follow."

Later on, S&P caved even further, agreeing to allow Morgan Stanley to lower the "capital buffer" in the deal protecting investors without suffering a ratings penalty. As late as February 1st, 2006, Guadagnuolo was defiantly telling Morgan Stanley that the one-percent buffer was a "pillar of our analysis." But by the next day, Morgan Stanley executive Moubarak had chopped Guadagnuolo's knees out. He cheerfully announced in a group e-mail that the bank had managed to remove this "pillar" and get the buffer knocked down to .75 percent.

Tina Sprinz, who worked for the Cheyne hedge fund, sent an e-mail that very day to Moubarak, thanking him for straightening out the pesky analysts. "Thanks for negotiating that," she says. The ratings process shouldn't be a "negotiation," yet this word appears throughout these documents.

In the Cheyne deal, just the plaintiffs in the lawsuit invested a total of $980 million in "rated notes," and those who invested in these "MCNs" were completely wiped out. Analysts from both agencies would express regret and/or trepidation about their roles in unleashing the monster deals and their failure to stop the business-side suits running the companies from selling them out. Gilkes, the S&P analyst who worried about shunning real science in favor of just making things up, later testified that the subprime assets in such SIVs were "not appropriate."

"They should not have been rated," he said.

If the significance of Cheyne is that it showed how the ratings agencies sold out in an effort to get business, the significance of the next deal, Rhinebridge, is that it showed how low they were willing to stoop to keep that business.

Rhinebridge was a subprime-packed SIV structured very much like Cheyne, only both the quality of the underlying crap in the SIV and the timing of the SIV's launch were significantly more horrible than even Cheyne's.

Not only did Morgan Stanley insist that the ratings agencies allow the bank to pack Rhinebridge full of a much higher quantity of subprime than in the Cheyne deal, they were also pushing this massive blob of toxic mortgages at a time when the subprime market was already approaching full collapse.

In fact, the Rhinebridge deal would launch with high ratings from both agencies on June 27th, 2007, less than two weeks before both Moody's and S&P would downgrade hundreds of subprime mortgage-backed securities. In other words, both Moody's and S&P were almost certainly in the process of downgrading the underlying assets in the Rhinebridge SIV even as they were preparing to launch Rhinebridge with AAA-rated notes.

"It was the briefest AAA rating in history," says the plaintiffs' lawyer Dan Drosman. "Rhinebridge went from AAA to junk in a matter of months."

There is an enormous documentary record in both agencies showing that analysts and executives knew a bust was coming long before they sent Rhinebridge out into the world with a AAA label. As early as 2005, S&P was talking in internal memorandums about a "bubble" in the real-estate markets, and in 2006 it knew that there had been "rampant appraisal and underwriting fraud for quite some time," causing "rising delinquencies" and "nightmare mortgages."

In June 2007, the same month Rhinebridge was launched, S&P's Board of Directors Report talked about a total collapse of the market. "The meltdown of the subprime-mortgage market will increase both foreclosures and the overhang of homes for sale."

It was no better at Moody's, where in June 2007, executives were internally discussing "increased amounts of lying on income" and "increased amounts of occupancy misstatements" in mortgage applications. Clarkson, who would become president two months later, was told the week before Rhinebridge launched that "most players in the market" believed subprime would "perform extremely poorly," and that the problems were "quite serious."

Yet the two ratings agencies not only kept those concerns private, they both took outlandish steps to declare just the opposite.

In a pair of matching public papers, both Moody's and S&P proclaimed that summer that while subprime might be going to hell, subprime-packed investments like SIVs might be just fine. The Moody's report on July 18th read "SIVs: An Oasis of Calm in the Sub-prime Maelstrom," while an S&P report on August 14th, 2007, was titled "Report Says SIV Ratings Are Weathering Current Market Disruptions."

The S&P report was so brazen that it even shocked a Morgan Stanley banker involved in the SIV deals. "I cannot believe these morons would reaffirm in this market," chortled the banker in an e-mail the day after the paper was released.

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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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