People

S&P’s Parent Hires an Ex-E&Y Watchdog

Former audit-firm chief Ray Groves will keep tabs on the rating agency, internally and externally. He'll report to the CEO and board of McGraw-Hill...
David McCannJanuary 7, 2009

The parent company of Standard & Poor’s intends to keep a closer eye on the doings of its beleaguered offspring. The McGraw-Hill Cos. announced the hiring of an “ombudsman” to monitor issues and concerns raised about the ratings agency, both internally and externally — reporting directly to McGraw-Hill chairman and CEO Harold McGraw III.

The position will be filled by a finance heavyweight: Ray Groves, whose résumé includes 17 years as chairman and CEO of Ernst & Young. After leaving E&Y in 1994 he served six years in various roles, including chairman, at Legg Mason Merchant Banking, and spent four years as chairman and president of Marsh Inc.

The choice of Groves suggests the importance McGraw-Hill places on the need for S&P oversight. Along with its competitors, Moody’s Investors Service and Fitch Ratings, S&P has been under fire since 2007 from critics who say they contributed to the financial crisis by slapping sterling grades on questionable securities. In the past year and a half the value of many structured investments has plunged while default rates have soared. The agencies have been charged with being slow to downgrade mortgage debt, which enabled looser lending and hurt bondholders.

In a statement released by McGraw-Hill, Groves implied a connection between those troubles and his appointment. “I intend to do all that I can to address any issues brought to my office in as fair, transparent, and expeditious a manner as possible, and in doing so, help restore confidence in the markets,” he said.

Asked whether the hiring of Groves is a direct response to the criticism, McGraw-Hill spokesman Steven Weiss told CFO.com, “S&P is committed to helping restore confidence and transparency in the credit markets, and we’re determined to play a leadership role in doing so.” He noted that the company announced last February its plan to install an ombudsman.

In addition to reporting to Harold McGraw III, Groves, who is 72, will be accountable to McGraw-Hill’s audit committee and will make an annual report to the public.

Groves’s observance of S&P will add to heightened scrutiny of the rating agencies by the Securities and Exchange Commission. The SEC last month prohibited the agencies from helping to structure the same financial products they rate. The regulator also required the raters to keep better records of their rating processes and third-party complaints and prohibited them from accepting gifts of more than $25 from securities issuers.

In addition, the SEC required firms that are paid by issuers to post online a random sample of their ratings’ history, based on asset class.

Chief executives at Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s, and Fitch have admitted their firms’ assessments of mortgage-backed securities could have been more accurate, but they have pushed aside accusations that they played a heavy role in the credit crisis. Their ratings are restricted to what securities issuers tell them, the officials have said.

S&P has implemented a range of actions this year that address the criticisms and, as Weiss put it, “enhance our ratings process.” Those included instituting an analyst rotation program, formulating a risk oversight committee, and adding requirements for additional loan-level data from bond issuers. “Today’s appointment of Ray Groves is consistent with these leadership actions,” Weiss said.