Posted on 13 May 2010
According to sources, New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo has started an investigation of eight banks to determine whether they provided misleading information to rating agencies in order to inflate the grades of certain mortgage securities.
The investigation parallels federal inquiries into the business practices of a broad range of financial companies in the years before the collapse of the housing market.
Where those investigations have focused on interactions between the banks and their clients who bought mortgage securities, this one expands the scope of scrutiny to the interplay between banks and the agencies that rate their securities.
The agencies themselves have been widely criticized for overstating the quality of many mortgage securities that ended up losing money once the housing market collapsed. The inquiry by the attorney general suggests that he thinks the agencies may have been duped by one or more of the targets of his investigation.
Those targets are Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, UBS, Citigroup, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, Crédit Agricole and Merrill Lynch, which is now owned by Bank of America.
The companies that rated the mortgage deals are Standard & Poor’s, Fitch Ratings and Moody’s Investors Service. Investors used their ratings to decide whether to buy mortgage securities.
Mr. Cuomo’s investigation follows an article in The New York Times that described some of the techniques bankers used to get more positive evaluations from the rating agencies.
Mr. Cuomo is also interested in the revolving door of employees of the rating agencies who were hired by bank mortgage desks to help create mortgage deals that got better ratings than they deserved, said the people with knowledge of the investigation, who were not authorized to discuss it publicly.
Contacted after subpoenas were issued by Mr. Cuomo’s office notifying the banks of his investigation, representatives for Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse, UBS and Deutsche Bank declined to comment. Other banks did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
In response to questions for the Times article in April, a Goldman Sachs spokesman, Samuel Robinson, said: “Any suggestion that Goldman Sachs improperly influenced rating agencies is without foundation. We relied on the independence of the ratings agencies’ processes and the ratings they assigned.”
Goldman, which is already under investigation by federal prosecutors, has been defending itself against civil fraud accusations made in a complaint last month by the Securities and Exchange Commission. The deal at the heart of that complaint — called Abacus 2007-AC1 — was devised in part by a former Fitch Ratings employee named Shin Yukawa, whom Goldman recruited in 2005.
At the height of the mortgage boom, companies like Goldman offered million-dollar pay packages to workers like Mr. Yukawa who had been working at much lower pay at the rating agencies, according to several former workers at the agencies.
Around the same time that Mr. Yukawa left Fitch, three other analysts in his unit also joined financial companies like Deutsche Bank.
In some cases, once these workers were at the banks, they had dealings with their former colleagues at the agencies. In the fall of 2007, when banks were hard-pressed to get mortgage deals done, the Fitch analyst on a Goldman deal was a friend of Mr. Yukawa, according to two people with knowledge of the situation.
Mr. Yukawa did not respond to requests for comment. A Fitch spokesman said Thursday that the firm would cooperate with Mr. Cuomo’s inquiry.
Wall Street played a crucial role in the mortgage market’s path to collapse. Investment banks bundled mortgage loans into securities and then often rebundled those securities one or two more times. Those securities were given high ratings and sold to investors, who have since lost billions of dollars on them.
Banks were put on notice last summer that investigators of all sorts were looking into their mortgage operations, when requests for information were sent out to all of the big Wall Street firms. The topics of interest included the way mortgage securities were created, marketed and rated and some banks’ own trading against the mortgage market.
The S.E.C.’s civil case against Goldman is the most prominent action so far. But other actions could be taken by the Justice Department, the F.B.I. or the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission — all of which are looking into the financial crisis. Criminal cases carry a higher burden of proof than civil cases. Under a New York state law, Mr. Cuomo can bring a criminal or civil case.
His office scrutinized the rating agencies back in 2008, just as the financial crisis was beginning. In a settlement, the agencies agreed to demand more information on mortgage bonds from banks.
Mr. Cuomo was also concerned about the agencies’ fee arrangements, which allowed banks to shop their deals among the agencies for the best rating. To end that inquiry, the agencies agreed to change their models so they would be paid for any work they did for banks, even if those banks did not select them to rate a given deal.