As the housing market collapsed in late 2007, Moody's Investors Service, whose investment ratings were widely trusted, responded by purging analysts and executives who warned of trouble and promoting those who helped Wall Street plunge the country into its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
A McClatchy investigation has found that Moody's punished executives who questioned why the company was risking its reputation by putting its profits ahead of providing trustworthy ratings for investment offerings.
Instead, Moody's promoted executives who headed its "structured finance" division, which assisted Wall Street in packaging loans into securities for sale to investors. It also stacked its compliance department with the people who awarded the highest ratings to pools of mortgages that soon were downgraded to junk. Such products have another name now: "toxic assets."
As Congress tackles the broadest proposed overhaul of financial regulation since the 1930s, however, lawmakers still aren't fully aware of what went wrong at the bond rating agencies, and so they may fail to address misaligned incentives such as granting stock options to mid-level employees, which can be an incentive to issue positive ratings rather than honest ones.
"This was a systematic and aggressive strategy to replace a culture that was very conservative, an accuracy-and-quality oriented (culture), a getting-the-rating-right kind of culture, with a culture that was supposed to be 'business-friendly,' but was consistently less likely to assign a rating that was tougher than our competitors," Froeba said.
After Froeba and others raised concerns that the methodology Moody's was using to rate investment offerings allowed the firm's profit interests to trump honest ratings, he and nine other outspoken critics in his group were "downsized" in December 2007.
Others who worked at Moody's at the time described a culture of willful ignorance in which executives knew how far lending standards had fallen and that they were giving top ratings to risky products.
"I could see it coming at the tail end of 2006, but it was too late. You knew it was just insane," said one former Moody's manager. "They certainly weren't going to do anything to mess with the revenue machine."
Moody's wasn't alone in ignoring the mounting problems. It wasn't even first among competitors. The financial industry newsletter Asset-Backed Alert found that Standard & Poor's participated in 1,962 deals in 2006 involving pools of loans, while Moody's did 1,697. In 2005, Standard & Poor's did 1,754 deals to Moody's 1,120. Fitch was well behind both.
"S&P is deeply disappointed in the performance of its ratings on certain securities tied to the U.S. residential real estate market. As far back as April of 2005, S&P warned investors about increased risks in the residential mortgage market," said Edward Sweeney, a company spokesman. S&P revised criteria and demanded greater buffers against default risks before rating pools of mortgages, he said.
Still, S&P continued to give top ratings to products that analysts from all three ratings agencies knew were of increasingly poor quality. To guard against defaults, they threw more bad loans into the loan pools, telling investors they were reducing risk.
The ratings agencies were under no legal obligation since technically their job is only to give an opinion, protected as free speech, in the form of ratings.
"As an analyst, I wouldn't have known there was a compliance function. There was an attitude of carelessness, or careless ignorance of the law. I think it is a result of the mentality that what we do is just an opinion, and so the law doesn't apply to us," Kolchinsky said.