Calpers Sues The Rating Agencies For Bad Investment Advice

Just the first of many lawsuits of this type that will be coming down the pike but this one has some rich irony to it.

Calpers, the California retirement system manager, has filed suit against Moody’s, Standard & Poors and Fitch claiming that they are responsible for over $1 billion of losses it incurred in investments in structured investment vehicles which owned exotic financial assets.

From the NYT:

The suit from the California Public Employees Retirement System, or Calpers, a public fund known for its shareholder activism, is the latest sign of renewed scrutiny over the role that credit ratings agencies played in providing positive reports about risky securities issued during the subprime boom that have lost nearly all of their value.

The lawsuit, filed late last week in California Superior Court in San Francisco, is focused on a form of debt called structured investment vehicles, highly complex packages of securities made up of a variety of assets, including subprime mortgages. Calpers bought $1.3 billion of them in 2006; they collapsed in 2007 and 2008.

Calpers maintains that in giving these packages of securities the agencies’ highest credit rating, the three top ratings agencies — Moody’s Investors Service, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch — “made negligent misrepresentation” to the pension fund, which provides retirement benefits to 1.6 million public employees in California.

The AAA ratings given by the agencies “proved to be wildly inaccurate and unreasonably high,” according to the suit, which also said that the methods used by the rating agencies to assess these packages of securities “were seriously flawed in conception and incompetently applied.”

OK, that’s standard stuff and we will see a lot more of it. Who prevails is an open question, however, I think that if the tide does turn against the rating agencies then the legal actions are most likely money down a dry hole. There’s no way that the agencies have the funds to cover a wave of negative judgements. But here’s the most intriguing part of this article:

While the lawsuit is not the first against the credit rating agencies, some of which face litigation not only from investors in the securities they rated but from their own shareholders, too, it does lay out how an investor as sophisticated as Calpers, which has $173 billion in assets, could be led astray.

The security packages were so opaque that only the hedge funds that put them together — Sigma S.I.V. and Cheyne Capital Management in London, and Stanfield Capital Partners in New York — and the ratings agencies knew what the packages contained. Information about the securities in these packages was considered proprietary and not provided to the investors who bought them.

I’m sorry but I don’t buy that load of bull shit. If Calpers couldn’t figure out what the risks were and if , indeed, the securities were so opaque as to defeat its attempts at due diligence then they shouldn’t have bought them. If, failing an attempt to justify their investment, they proceeded to dump $1 billion into the SIV on the hope and prayer that the ratings were correct then they were totally derelict in carrying out their fiduciary responsibilities and every man jack needs to join Bernie Madoff in the slammer.

I make no apologies for the rating agencies but an agency the size of Calpers should have been able to guage the risk it assumed.

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