Standard & Poor's Financial Services, along with its parent, McGraw Hill Financial Inc., will pay $1.375 billion to resolve allegations that the ratings firm issued stellar ratings for poorly underwritten mortgage-backed securities in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis, thus misleading investors as to loan quality, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced this week.
Half of the payment – or $687.5 million – will be paid to the federal government, while the remaining $687.5 million will be divided among the 19 states and the District of Columbia that joined in the lawsuit, which was filed in 2013.
It is reportedly the largest fine a top-three U.S. ratings agency has ever paid.
As part of the settlement, S&P ‘admits that its decisions on its rating models were affected by business concerns, and that, with an eye to business concerns, it maintained and continued to issue positive ratings on securities despite a growing awareness of quality problems with those securities,’ according to a DOJ press release.
In addition, the ratings firm must admit to investors that it failed provide an ‘independent and objective’ review of residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) that was not ‘affected by any existing or potential business relationship.’
Further, it must admit that ‘decisions about the testing and rollout of updates to S&P's model for rating collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) were made, at least in part, based on the effect that any update would have on S&P's business relationship with issuers.’
In addition, the ratings firm must admit that staff knew in 2007 that ‘many loans in RMBS transactions â�¦ were delinquent and that losses were probable.’
Further, S&P must admit that representatives at the time ‘continued to issue and confirm positive ratings without adjustments to reflect the negative rating actions that it expected would come.’
Also as part of the agreement, S&P has formally retracted an allegation that the Justice Department's lawsuit was filed in retaliation for the lower credit rating it gave the U.S. in 2011.
Finally, S&P has agreed to comply with the consumer protection statutes of each of the 19 settling states and the District of Columbia.
‘On more than one occasion, the company's leadership ignored senior analysts who warned that the company had given top ratings to financial products that were failing to perform as advertised,’ says Attorney General Eric Holder in a statement. ‘As S&P admits under this settlement, company executives complained that the company declined to downgrade under-performing assets because it was worried that doing so would hurt the company's business. 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.’
The settlement is in addition to S&P's recent agreement to pay $77 million to the federal government and two states to resolve allegations that it misled investors as to how it went about rating RMBS in 2011 and 2012. Under the terms of that settlement, S&P will pay $58 million to the Securities and Exchange Commission and $19 million to the states of New York and Massachusetts.
In what some might consider a more substantive punitive measure, the ratings agency also agreed to abstain from issuing ratings on certain types of RMBS for a year.