Moody's Corp. disclosed yesterday that it has received two subpoenas from New York state Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer, seeking documents and other information about how the bond rating company issues unsolicited ratings and other credit-rating practices.
Moody's, one of the world's biggest credit rating companies, said it received the most recent subpoena on July 13 about its ratings, policies and practices involving the financial strength and debt of reinsurance companies, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The attorney general also asked for information about ratings that Moody's issued even when the borrower did not seek them, dating to Jan. 1, 1997.
Such practices came under scrutiny in November when The Washington Post reported how Moody's Investors Service, the firm's ratings division, had sought to rate the financial strength of German reinsurer Hannover Re against its wishes, beginning in 1998. While other credit raters gave high financial marks to Hannover, which provides insurance for insurance companies, Moody's continued to downgrade its debt rating until it reached junk status, sparking a sharp drop in Hannover stock and lopping off about 10 percent of its market value.
New York-based Moody's maintains that it did not downgrade Hannover, which does about half of its business in the United States, because it refused to pay Moody's ratings fees. Moody's had a separate arrangement in which it rated $400 million in debt issued by a Hannover subsidiary.
In the other subpoena, issued May 11, Spitzer sought documents and other information about how Moody's rated or sought to rate debt backed by jumbo mortgages from prime borrowers. The attorney general also requested documents and other information about Moody's credit policies and procedures since Jan. 1, 1999.
The credit rater said it is cooperating with the attorney general's office. "We take the matter very seriously, just as we do every regulatory inquiry," said Moody's spokeswoman Frances G. Laserson. "Because this is an ongoing legal matter, we can't comment beyond our disclosure."
Moody's shares dropped yesterday, closing at $47.31, down $2.12.
Marc Violette, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, said that as a general practice, it does not confirm or deny that it has issued a subpoena.
Spitzer is conducting a broader probe of the insurance industry; already his investigations have resulted in several guilty pleas from insurance executives, as well as industry fines and restitution of more than $1 billion. Spitzer is running for the Democratic nomination for governor of New York.
The Senate Banking Committee in February questioned the credit rater about its Hannover ratings and unsolicited ratings. Moody's said then and in a subsequent letter to the committee that it had done nothing wrong. "We do not believe that Moody's policies or ethical standards were violated," it stated.
Meanwhile, the SEC recently drafted an outline of regulatory measures that lawmakers could consider that would give the agency power to inspect raters' records and enforce its rules through administrative action or civil injunctions. Now, there is no official regulation of the raters, who hand out letter grades to companies and countries that want to borrow money by issuing bonds.
In addition, a bill has been introduced in the House that would police various issues involving credit raters, including conflicts of interest, anti-competitive practices such as unsolicited ratings, and the potential misuse of non-public information. The bill's co-sponsors, including Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), said they hope to enact the bill by year-end.