Expressing impatience with the Securities and Exchange Commission, lawmakers said in a hearing yesterday that they will act to force stronger oversight of the influential credit rating business if the agency doesn't soon move on its own.
Over the past 30 years, rating firms have increasingly gained power in global markets, assessing the financial well-being of corporations, cities, school districts and sovereign nations. The letter grades passed out by rating companies can immediately move stock, bond and currency markets and raise the cost of borrowing for companies and countries alike.
The SEC has periodically reviewed the credit rating industry, but the world's major rating companies -- including Moody's Investors Service, Standard & Poor's and Fitch Ratings -- remain largely unregulated. The SEC has given four credit raters a national designation, giving them a de facto oligopoly, but little else. There are no formal rules about how a rating company gets that national designation, nor is there formal oversight of rating companies.
The SEC began to scrutinize the rating firms a decade ago and picked up the issue again after they failed to recognize the impending collapse of Enron Corp. in late 2001. That scandal prompted an SEC report 15 months ago raising questions about the role of rating companies and a House hearing 17 months ago taking the SEC to task for failing to impose tighter controls over the rating business.
At yesterday's hearing by a House Financial Services subcommittee, Rep. Richard H. Baker (R-La.) said he was frustrated with the SEC's lack of action. He called for rules governing the way rating firms obtain the SEC's national designation, more disclosures about how rating firms assess companies and better oversight of rating firms. Baker said he was also troubled by rating firms that bill companies for ratings they never requested.
"This clearly is an area begging for reform," Baker, the subcommittee chairman, said in an interview after the hearing. He said the SEC has spent enough time reviewing the rating business. "Ten years, even in government work, that's sufficient time," he said.
If the SEC doesn't offer remedies soon, Baker said, there is bipartisan support to introduce a reform bill as early as the spring. Another option is to submit proposed reforms to the SEC and impose a deadline for the regulator to implement them, he said. A third option is to take away the SEC's oversight authority over the rating business and hand it to another government body, like the Federal Reserve. Baker, however, said he was reluctant to take such aggressive action.
No SEC representative testified at yesterday's hearing; Baker said the session was an opportunity to hear from industry players, which included smaller rating companies. Agency spokesman John Nester declined to comment yesterday on the pacing of the SEC's work or the possibility of losing its authority over the rating business, but said in a statement, "The commission is working to craft a proposal regarding credit rating agencies that it expects to make public before year end."
Frances G. Laserson, a Moody's spokeswoman who attended yesterday's hearing, said her firm welcomed the SEC's review. Fitch officials did not attend the hearing, but reached for comment, Charles D. Brown, its general counsel, said, "No one has put forth any credible evidence that we're aware of for the need for regulation." S&P said in a statement that the company looks forward to appearing before the subcommittee in the future.