Credit Ratings Agencies Are Pimps of Wall Street: It's Time to Ban Them!
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Is Eric Holder’s “See No Evil, Hear No Evil” Department of Justice finally getting serious about investigating fraud on Wall Street? At first glance, it would seem so, given the news that the Department of Justice has filed civil fraud charges against the nation’s largest credit-ratings agency, Standard & Poor’s, accusing the firm of inflating the ratings of mortgage investments and setting them up for a crash when the financial crisis struck.
On the one hand, there is no question that without the credit rating agencies the Wall Street guys would not have been able to pull off this colossal heist against the American people, and the ratings agencies cannot be excused. In fact, Standard & Poor’s employees openly joked about the company’s willingness to rate deals “structured by cows” and sang and danced to a mock song inspired by “Burning Down the House” before the 2008 global financial collapse, according to the DOJ lawsuit. On the other, the ratings agencies are simply the gift wrappers. DOJ has yet to go after the banksters who created these packages in the first place and who seem to be in the clear as a result of a series of unconscionably low settlements recently reached with the Justice Department.
I suppose we ought to be grateful for these baby steps in the right direction. The ratings agencies themselves have admitted to US government enquiries recently that they took money in return for ratings that were not based on any fundamental assessments other than the cash they were being paid. They have lied about the risk of default in many corporate cases and then marked down debt when the game was up further destabilizing the financial system. Hence, to say that their behavior was at the heart of the great crisis is absolutely correct.
Of course, that inevitably begets the obvious question: what took you so long and why leave it at S&P? As early as September 2004, the FBI warned that there was an “epidemic” of mortgage fraud and predicted that it would cause a financial crisis if it were not stopped. It was not contained. Everyone agrees that the mortgage fraud epidemic expanded massively after the FBI warning and still not one Wall Street figure of any note has gone to jail.
Under Treasury Secretary Geithner, and the Keystone Cops of the Department of Justice, led by Eric Holder and Lanny Breuer, we established a doctrine of “too big to jail” for the very institutions which perpetrated massive frauds on millions of Americans. Those who called for regulations that would take even that most minimal of steps necessary to reestablish the rule of law and restore our nation’s democracy and financial stability were essentially ignored. Geithner’s express rationale was that the financial system's extreme fragility made vigorous investigations of the elite frauds too dangerous, in effect giving the banksters a get-out-of-jail-free card and in effect enshrining crony capitalism and imperiling our economy, our democracy, and our national integrity.
So what’s changed? Well, obviously one has to ask if the departure from Treasury of Mr. Geithner, along with the ignominious resignation of the odious Lanny Breuer at the DOJ heralds a new approach, or are there are other motives in mind?
There is a school of thought which suggests that this lawsuit is an attempt by the US government to intimidate the ratings agencies against any further US debt downgrades. If so, it’s a pretty stupid shakedown. The truth is that sovereign governments like the US empower these agencies simply by listening to them, in the same way they listen to the IMF, and put the interests of these undemocratic and crooked agencies ahead of their own national interests.