WASHINGTON — Sen. Al Franken pleaded with the Securities and Exchange Commission Tuesday to change what he considers a hopelessly corrupted ratings system for financial products.
The Minnesota Democrat believes rating companies promoted “junk” in exchange for continued business from financial institutions. An amendment he co-sponsored with Sen. Roger Wicker, R.-Miss., to the 2010 Wall Street reform required action if a study revealed ongoing conflicts of interest between ratings agencies and companies that hire them to judge the risk of financial products.
That study, released in December 2012, concluded that the potential for conflicts remains. But the effort to change financial product ratings has progressed glacially.
“My plea to you today is that you take action,” Franken told commissioners at the start of Tuesday’s daylong hearing to discuss how to fix conflicts of interest that led to AAA ratings for virtually worthless securities, which helped cause the Great Recession.
SEC commissioners listened to 26 experts from the financial services sector, ratings agencies, academia and government, as well as Franken, Wicker and U.S. Rep. Scott Garrett, R.-N.J.
The hearing left in limbo Franken’s and Wicker’s proposal to let an SEC-appointed commission name the agencies that perform initial risk assessments of structured financial investments such as mortgage-backed securities.
“Investors are always going to have to rely on these ratings,” Franken said. “A pension manager making investments for the pension funds of volunteer firefighters in Kandiyohi County in central Minnesota simply doesn’t have the resources to do his or her own complex credit risk analysis.”
Franken has said he expects SEC action within months to address conflicts of interest in the ratings process.
That timetable is optimistic, said Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.
“Once you begin changing, the big money comes out to try to thwart it or dilute it,” Ornstein said, referring to the financial services industry as well as the rating agencies. “The review process has a lot of people involved who don’t want anything to happen,” he said. “One thing I realize after 43 years in Washington is if you expect it’s all going to happen in the next two years, you’re going to be disappointed.”
Among those the SEC invited to comment Tuesday was Douglas Peterson, president of Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services. His company has been sued for fraud by the U.S. Justice Department for purposely understating the risks of securities in the buildup to the 2008 financial meltdown. S&P has denied wrongdoing.
Peterson opposed the government appointment of credit raters that Franken wants, as did most members of the ratings and financial industry who were invited to the roundtable.
The Financial Services Roundtable, now led by former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, was not on any of the SEC panels. But Pawlenty’s organization has previously spoken publicly against Franken’s plan.
The financial sector generally supports alternatives that preserve the right of banks and brokerages to pick their own product raters. The industry has coalesced behind a system that would add unsolicited ratings of financial instruments to supplement the ones financial institutions solicit.
There was also discussion Tuesday of disclosing if banks or brokerages “shop” for better product ratings and of developing a licensing procedure.
Public policy specialist Jay Kiedrowski of the University of Minnesota sees those moves as efforts from a chastened ratings industry.
“They had been convinced [packaging mortgages] was viable,” Kiedrowski said. “They didn’t have the ability to do the proper analysis.”
But Franken read from an e-mail obtained by investigators in the S&P fraud suit: “Let’s hope we are all wealthy and retired by the time this house of cards falters,” it said.
Dave Berg of Eden Prairie takes that cynicism personally. Berg did not attend Tuesday’s roundtable, but Franken quoted from him while speaking to the SEC commissioners. Berg lost his IT job in 2008 and has not worked full time since. Now 60, Berg has spent practically all of his retirement savings living day-to-day.
As he drew down those funds, the stock market crashed and shrank his nest egg.
“You would think a AAA rating would be a good investment,” Beg said in an interview. “We depend on the rating system to be accurate. When banks pay for AAA ratings, that doesn’t lend a lot of faith.”