Risk & Compliance

S&P Settles Suits Over MBS Ratings

The credit rating agency declined to downgrade underperforming securities because it would hurt business, said Eric Holder.
Matthew HellerFebruary 4, 2015

Standard & Poor’s has agreed to pay about $1.38 billion to settle allegations that it contributed to the 2007-08 financial crisis by issuing inflated ratings for mortgage-backed securities in order to win more business.

The settlement resolves a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit against S&P, along with the similar suits of 19 states and the District of Columbia, all of which were filed over the credit-rating agency’s alleged role in the financial collapse. The securities included residential MBS and collateralized debt obligations.

“As S&P admits under this settlement, company executives complained that the company declined to downgrade underperforming assets because it was worried that doing so would hurt the company’s business,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a news release. “While this strategy may have helped S&P avoid disappointing its clients, it did major harm to the larger economy, contributing to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.”

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Half of the $1.375 billion payment — or $687.5 million — is a penalty to be paid to the federal government and is the largest penalty of its kind ever paid by a rating agency.  The remaining $687.5 million will be divided among the states and the District of Columbia.

“Today’s announcement is the latest result of our dedicated effort to address misconduct of every kind that contributed to the financial crisis,” said Acting Associate Attorney General Delery.

According to a congressional report on the causes of the financial crisis, S&P and Moody’s issued ratings that made risky mortgage-backed securities appear to be safe investments. The report concluded that the firms then triggered the crisis when they were forced to downgrade the inflated ratings.

But the settlement announced Tuesday was greeted with outrage from those who believe the Justice Department has let Wall Street off the hook in its handling of corporate crime cases.

“S&P got off cheap and the fact that none of the people in charge of the company at the time are going to jail tells you it’s business as usual between Washington and Wall Street,” Bill Saporito wrote on Time.com.

Bartlett Naylor of the Public Citizen advocacy group told Corporate Crime Reporter that while S&P was one of the “essential cogs in the wheel of financial destruction,” it walked away with a “traffic fine.”