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Risk Shopping | Brazilian Cases in Point

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Source: Folha de S.Paulo.

Risk evaluation agencies assigned high ratings and low risk to several Brazilian banks that recently failed.

Banco BVA, for example, received a BBB rating from ratings agency LF Rating four days before suffering a Central Bank intervention on October 19.

Austin Rating assigned  BVA a BBB+ less than two months before its collapse.

The same occurred with  Cruzeiro do Sul, liquidated in September with R$ 3.1 billion in debt, and  Panamericano, which underwent a federal intervention on November 9, 2010.

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Risk ratings affect companies in one of two ways. On one hand, investors use the ratings as a guide to potential investment. Some funds invest exclusively in paper declared risk-free .

On the other hand, financiers evaluate risk using these ratings: the lower the rating, the more expensive it is to borrow money.

With the blessing of the ratings agencies, pension funds such as Petros, Brazil’s second largest, is able to invest in riskier fixed income paper, stamped “safe” by the agencies.  Petros had R$ 80 million in three funds with ties to BVA and invested in the bank’s bonds.

Shopping for Ratings

A practice still allowed by the market aggravated the problem: the so-called “shopping mall of ratings.”Companies needing positive ratings request a preliminary report from a given agency. If the rating is low, they try again with another agency, and so on until receiving the rating desired.

Since it is not yet required to make public these preliminary findings, the investor never suspects that the company has a bad credit rating.

To counter the negative effeects of this practice, the Brazilian SEC — the CVM — will as of January 2013 require the publication of preliminary ratings reports on the Web site of the rating agency

“This new CVM rule should mitigate the «ratings shopping center»  deve mitigar esse shopping de ratings,” says Rafael Guedes, CEO of Fitch Ratings Brasil.

“In Brazil, every agency has its own criteria, and there are major discrepancies,”say Sergio Garibian, ratings director, Standard & Poor’s, Latin America.

In February 2006, Cruzeiro do Sul exited its contract with Fitch, which had assigned it a rating of BB+(bra),  with “elevlalted risk of default.” The same year, the bank signed with Moody’s, which assigned it Baa1 for long-term deposits, and then three months later raised it toA3. Both are considered indicative of investment grade.

Responding to these contradictions, federal deputy Eduardo da Fonte (PP-PE) presented a bill that would make agencies responsible for “damages caused by intentional or negligent conduct in arriving at risk ratings.

“It is not norml for some agencies to classify a bank as low-risk and then watch it go out of business a few days later,” Fonte says. “Either the bank coopted the agency or else the agency is not qualified to rate anyone.”

Erivelto Rodrigues, CEO Austin Rating, says the “shopping mall of ratings” only occur in structures such as FIDCs — investment funds in rights to future receivables.”I don’t believe this happens with companies and banks,” he said.

Para Paulo Rabelo de Castro, CEO of SR Rating, which classified none of the banks in question, “strict regulation is required at a moment when the government is trying to stimulate the market for debentures.”

Brazil’s largest pension fund, Previ only accepts ratings from three agenices: S&P, Moody’sand  Fitch. Funcef, meanwhile, buys private debt instruments that are evaluated by at least one ratings agency, it matters not which.

Funcef was holding notes from both  PanAmericano and Cruzeiro do Sul. In the  Cruzeiro case, it received its entire investment back thanks to a special guarantee clause.

The Risk Mall 101

I can hardly claim to be an expert on the subject, but a study byVasiliki Skreta and Laura Veldkamp — «Ratings Shopping and Asset Complexity: A Theory of Ratings Inflation» seems like a good place to start. The abstract:

Many identify inflated credit ratings as one contributor to the recent financial market turmoil. We develop an equilibrium model of the market for ratings and use it to examine possible origins of and cures for ratings inflation. In the model, asset issuers can shop for ratings — observe multiple ratings and disclose only the most favorable — before auctioning their assets.

When assets are simple, agencies’ ratings are similar and the incentive to ratings shop is low. When assets are sufficiently complex, ratings differ enough that an incentive to shop emerges.

Thus, an increase in the complexity of recently-issued securities could create a systematic bias in disclosed ratings, despite the fact that each ratings agency produces an unbiased estimate of the asset’s true quality.

Increasing competition among agencies would only worsen this problem. Switching to an investor-initiated ratings system alleviates the bias, but could collapse the market for information.

The lede:

Most market observers attribute the recent credit crunch to a confluence of factors: excess leverage, underestimation of risk, opacity, lax screening by mortgage originators, improperly estimated correlation between bundled assets, market-distorting regulations, a rise in the popularity of new asset classes whose risks were diffcult to evaluate, as well as credit rating agency conflicts of interest.

This paper investigates the misrating of structured credit products, widely cited as one contributor to the crisis. Our main objective is to critically examine two arguments about why ratings problems arose and to show how combining the two could produce a ratings bias that imperfectly informed investors would not anticipate.

One argument focuses on asset issuers who shop for the highest ratings. The New York Times explains: The banks pay only if [the ratings agency] delivers the desired rating . . . If Moody’s and a client bank don’t see eye-to-eye, the bank can either tweak the numbers or try its luck with a competitor like S&P, a process known as ratings shopping.

A final thought: the Sadia and Aracruz derivatives crises of 2007 — exchange rate swaps — seem to illustrate the same logic. Risky assets kept off the books until the roller coaster came to a full stop..

In reality, the two largest agencies, Moody’s and S&P, account for 80 percent of market share. When a structured credit product is issued, the issuer typically proposes a structure to an agency and asks it for a \shadow rating.” This rating is private information between the agency and the issuer, unless the issuer pays the agency to make the rating offcial and publicize it. In the model, an asset issuer can purchase and make public one or two signals about the payoff of an asset. We call these signals “ratings.” After choosing the number of ratings to observe and which ones to make public, the issuer holds an auction for his assets. After each investor submits a menu of price-quantity pairs, the asset issuer sets the highest market-clearing price for his asset, and all investors pay that price per share.