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Global Monitor: Bond Rating Agencies

"Global Monitor: Bond Rating Agencies." New Political Economy. Volume 8, Number 1, March 2003, pp. 147-161.

 

ABSTARCT

Emerging from relative obscurity in the 1990s, the major bond rating agencies, Moody’s Investors Service and Standard & Poor’s (S&P), have recently acquired a global reach from their US home base. Their views on the creditworthiness of corporations, municipalities and sovereign governments have become much more significant as capital markets have grown more important as sources of financing relative to traditional bank loans. This new international role for the bond rating agencies builds upon a century of prior experience of rating and information provision in the United States.

The long gestation undertaken by the rating industry is usually ignored by analysts, but it is central to understanding the resources the rating agencies bring to their work, and why they are able to shield themselves from some of the rating ‘failures’ that took place in the 1990s. What the agencies actually sell is a feeling of confidence in the future, and how that feeling is created, managed (and challenged) are key moments in understanding the rating system. Rating agencies vary by reputation, the more eminent firms being more successful at inducing confidence.

I begin this report by briefly outlining the origins and current standing of the US agencies. The rating process and outputs are the focus of the second part, as these activities are key to understanding what makes rating work. In the third element of this report, I examine the controversy over the downgrading of Japanese sovereign bonds. In the subsequent section, I discuss the Enron bankruptcy, a key recent rating ‘failure’ that risks degrading or destroying the reputation of the global rating agencies. The report concludes with some speculation about future developments.