S&P Charged, Settles with States

The SEC has charged Standard & Poor’s with fraudulent ratings conduct related to ratings of mortgage-backed securities.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced a series of federal securities law violations by Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services involving fraudulent misconduct in its ratings of certain commercial mortgage-backed securities (CMBS).

S&P agreed to pay more than $58 million to settle the SEC’s charges, plus an additional $19 million to settle parallel cases announced by the New York Attorney General’s office ($12 million) and the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office ($7 million).

The SEC issued three orders instituting settled administrative proceedings against S&P. One order, in which S&P made certain admissions, addressed S&P’s practices in its conduit fusion CMBS ratings methodology. S&P’s public disclosures affirmatively misrepresented that it was using one approach when it actually used a different methodology in 2011 to rate six conduit fusion CMBS transactions and issue preliminary ratings on two more transactions. As part of this settlement, S&P agreed to take a one-year timeout from rating conduit fusion CMBS.

Another SEC order found that after being frozen out of the market for rating conduit fusion CMBS in late 2011, S&P sought to re-enter that market in mid-2012 by overhauling its ratings criteria. To illustrate the relative conservatism of its new criteria, S&P published a false and misleading article purporting to show that its new credit enhancement levels could withstand Great Depression-era levels of economic stress. S&P’s research relied on flawed and inappropriate assumptions and was based on data that was decades removed from the severe losses of the Great Depression. According to the SEC’s order, S&P’s original author of the study expressed concerns that the firm’s CMBS group had turned the article into a “sales pitch” for the new criteria, and that the removal of certain information from the article could lead to him “sit[ting] in front of [the] Department of Justice or the SEC.” The SEC’s order further finds that S&P failed to accurately describe certain aspects of its new criteria in the formal publication setting forth their operation. Without admitting or denying the findings in the order, S&P agreed to publicly retract the false and misleading Great Depression-related study and correct the inaccurate descriptions in the publication about its criteria.

A third SEC order issued in this case involved internal controls failures in S&P’s surveillance of residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) ratings. The order finds that S&P allowed breakdowns in the way it conducted ratings surveillance of previously-rated RMBS from October 2012 to June 2014. S&P changed an important assumption in a way that made S&P’s ratings less conservative, and was inconsistent with the specific assumptions set forth in S&P’s published criteria describing its ratings methodology. S&P did not follow its internal policies for making changes to its surveillance criteria and instead applied ad hoc workarounds that were not fully disclosed to investors. Without admitting or denying the findings in the order, S&P agreed to extensive undertakings to enhance and improve its internal controls environment.  S&P self-reported this particular misconduct to the SEC and cooperated with the investigation, enabling the enforcement division to resolve the case more quickly and efficiently and resulting in a reduced penalty for the firm.

“These enforcement actions, our first-ever against a major ratings firm, reflect our commitment to aggressively policing the integrity and transparency of the credit ratings process.” says Andrew J. Ceresney, director of the SEC Enforcement Division.

Since 2010, several lawsuits filed by pension funds against S&P and other ratings agencies related to ratings of mortgage-backed securities have been dismissed. In August 2014, the SEC adopted revisions to rules governing the disclosure, reporting, and offering process for asset-backed securities, as well as new requirements for credit rating agencies. A lawsuit brought by the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) against the three major ratings agencies has ultimately survived motions for dismissal.