Most people have heard the names Standard and Poor’s, Fitch and Moody’s, but probably have just a vague understanding of what these powerful organizations do.
In short, they pass judgment on the credit worthiness of states, municipalities and corporations and are an essential part of the process of selling bonds. And, over the years, they have cost Maine taxpayers millions of dollars, all unnecessarily.
Like a finger-wagging know-it-all, these guys tsk-tsk at the balance sheets of states, such as Maine, that must appear before them before they can sell bonds. The grades they dole out determine the amount that the state has to pay in interest.
Each spring that a bond is likely to be issued, a team from the Maine Treasurer’s Office and the Department of Administrative and Financial Services travels to New York, where they make the case that Maine is a solid investment.
And each spring, the state awaits judgment.
The rating agencies are in love with the “beauty of the balance sheet,” as one expert put it to me.
They love stability. Predictable revenues.
They don’t mind taxes or spending cuts. It’s all about cash flow to them. And maybe healthy reserves.
They despise uncertainty. The notion that Maine’s residents can take public policy directly into their own hands through ballot initiative or People’s Veto is always a cause for concern.
For the privilege of their graces, Maine must pay the rating agencies about $20,000 a visit, a figure that is likely to go up as the raters look for new streams of revenue.
Although it might be changing, the rating agencies are the only professional third-party reviewers of the state’s finances.
In a sane system, the intention is worthwhile. It’s to give investors critical information to help determine the risk associated with buying a bond. It’s to protect the integrity of the market.
In the real world, it’s a sham.
In May 2009, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission was created by Congress and the president to “examine the causes, domestic and global, of the current financial and economic crisis in the United States.”
The group found that the economic collapse could have been prevented and placed blame in many places, including government regulators, Wall Street and its investment bankers, and the other movers and shakers working on big-time finance.
Among the guilty: The rating agencies.
From the report: “We conclude the failures of the credit rating agencies were essential cogs in the wheel of financial destruction. The three credit rating agencies were key enablers of the financial meltdown. The mortgage-related securities at the heart of the crisis could not have been marketed and sold without their seal of approval. Investors relied upon them, often blindly. In some cases, they were obligated to use them.”
While not alone, the rating agencies contributed greatly to the economic collapse that has cost millions of people their jobs, their homes, their retirement, their security.
Yet, even today, they still hold sway over investors.
Maine’s Constitution is very clear about debt. The state treasurer, who controls the day-to-day flow of cash into the government, must pay the state’s debt in full and can intercept any state cash receipt needed to make the promised payment.
If the economy were to free-fall, if disaster left the elderly on the streets, schools burning, communities in tatters and revenues dropping, the treasurer has the constitutional obligation to pay the debt regardless of other priorities or needs. Unless revenues fall to about 5 percent of what they are today, default is not possible without a constitutional amendment that would need to be approved by two-thirds of the Legislature and then be approved by voters.
That’s a safe investment.
Yet the rating agencies have proven themselves willing to give junk investments the same ratings as U.S. Treasury Bonds — which are the backbone of the global economy — while nickel-and-diming Maine with artificially low ratings, all based on a subjective analysis by a bunch of folks who were whistling on the road to economic hell. And next visit, don’t be surprised if they don’t lower Maine’s rating again.
And those lower ratings cost taxpayers money. Unfairly.
Why should you care about bond rating agencies? Because they are taking your money for nothing, and they’re giving it to some of the same folks who took your neighbor’s job, your cousin’s house and have their eyes on your retirement.
David Farmer is former deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci. A longtime journalist, he has been an editor and reporter in Maine, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.