BY Richard Summerfield
After years of legal wrangling, credit rating agency Standard & Poor's has agreed to pay the federal, state and D.C. governments around $1.5bn to resolve several lawsuits covering the firm’s role in the 2008 financial crisis.
While the settlement does not bring an end to the scrutiny placed upon the wider ratings business (indeed, S&P’s competitors Fitch and Moody’s are still embroiled in legal battles), the agreement does bring to a close an embarrassing chapter in S&P’s history. The firm, much like its rival agencies, stood accused of issuing falsely inflated ratings of mortgage-backed securities during the housing boom of 2004 to 2007, which contributed to the onset of the 2008 financial crisis. “As S&P admits under this settlement, company executives complained that the company declined to downgrade underperforming assets because it was worried that doing so would hurt the company’s business,” said Attorney General Eric Holder. “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.”
Under the terms of the agreement, S&P’s parent group, McGraw Hill Financial Inc, will pay $687.5m to the US Department of Justice, and $687.5m to 19 states and the District of Columbia, which had all filed similar lawsuits. According to S&P, the firm agreed to the settlement in order “to avoid the delay, uncertainty, inconvenience and expense of further litigation".
S&P has also reached a separate $125m settlement agreement with the California Public Employees’ Retirement System. The pension fund opened legal proceedings against S&P in 2009.
The agreement reached between S&P and the DOJ is a so-called ‘no fault’ deal. Accordingly, the firm has admitted no wrongdoing as part of the settlement. No fault agreements have been particularly unpopular in the past and the S&P agreement has drawn fierce criticism from some circles. Critics of the plan have been particularly vocal in their opposition to the deal as S&P was not found to have violated the law under the terms of the deal. Some commentators had hoped that the firm would be held accountable for its actions, in order to act as a preventative measure in the future.