One of the factors that made it easy for the housing bubble to be inflated to ever more dangerous levels was the conduct of the credit rating agencies. They gave every subprime mortgage backed security (MBS) in sight top investment grade ratings. This made it easy for Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and the rest to sell their junk bonds all over the world.
There was a simple reason the credit rating agencies rated subprime MBS as AAA: money. The banks issuing the MBS pay the rating agency. If the big three rating agencies (Moody's, Standard and Poor's, and Fitch) wanted more business, they knew they had to give favorable ratings. The banks weren't paying for an honest assessment, they were paying for an investment grade rating.
There is a simple way around this conflict of interest. Have a neutral party select the rating agency. The issuer would still pay for the review, but would have no voice in selecting who got the job.
Senator Al Franken proposed an amendment to Dodd-Frank that would have gone exactly this route. (I worked with his staff on the amendment.) The amendment would have had the Securities and Exchange Commission pick the rating agency. This common sense proposal passed the Senate overwhelmingly with bi-partisan support.
Naturally something this simple and easy couldn't be allowed to pass into law. The amendment was taken out in conference committee and replaced with a requirement for the SEC to study the issue. After being inundated with comments from the industry, the SEC said Franken's proposal would not work because it wouldn't be able to do a good job assigning rating agencies. They might assign a rating agency that wasn't competent to rate an issue. (Think about that one for a moment. What would it mean about the structure of an MBS if professional analysts at Moody's or one of the other agencies didn't understand it?)
Anyhow, as is generally the case in Washington, the industry got its way so the cesspool was left in place. Timothy Geithner apparently is proud of the role he played in protecting the rating agencies since he touted this issue in his autobiography. Geithner is of course making lots of money now as a top figure at the private equity company Warburg Pincus, so everybody is happy.
This is all relevant now because it seems that the rating agencies are back to their old tricks, or so Matt O'Brien tells us in Wonkblog. There has been a flood of new bonds backed by subprime car loans. Apparently Fitch is getting almost none of this rating business because it refuses to rate garbage as AAA.
O'Brien does a good job in calling attention to what is going on in this market, but it would be good to remind everyone of why it is still going on. We do know how to fix the problem. It's just that Timothy Geithner and his friends don't want the problem fixed.