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The Great White Whale

by Michael W. Stocker
Eyes On Wall Street |

Of all the major players in the mortgage-backed asset debacle of the last two years, credit rating agencies have proven to be the great white whale for injured investors: an attractive target, but difficult to catch. This may be about to change.

The ire directed at the agencies is easy to understand. Only months before the spectacular collapses of Lehman Brothers and AIG, credit rating agencies gave these companies investment grades of A or higher. In email comments uncovered in a recent SEC investigation, one rating analyst suggested that, at her firm, a deal "could be structured by cows and we would rate it."

Historically, the First Amendment was one of the greatest impediments to suits against the ratings agencies. Ratings agencies argued that a rating is an "opinion" that is entirely protected, or is an assertion about a matter of public interest that is protected by the "actual malice" standard set forth in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 279-83 (1964).

There was a time when such arguments might have made sense. Originally, rating agencies were paid by subscribers to rate most or all of a particular kind of securities for the benefit of the public. However, by the 1970s, they had transitioned to a model where the agencies were paid by the companies whose products they rated, creating insoluble conflicts of interest.

Courts are increasingly unwilling to interpret the First Amendment as giving carte blanche to the agencies. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio recently refused to extend the First Amendment defense to a rating agency because its ratings were not published for the benefit of the investing public at large, but rather were distributed only to a select class of institutional investors. In re National Century Financial Enterprises Inc., Inv. Litigation, 580 F. Supp. 2d 630, 640 (S.D. Ohio 2008).

Such decisions should give investors some cause for hope that credit ratings agencies may yet be held responsible for their role in the market crisis.