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The U.S. Justice Department plans to file a civil suit this week accusing the credit rating company Standard and Poor's of fraud. Standard and Poor's is the company that famously downgraded U.S. debt in 2011. This investigation focuses on S and P's actions before the financial crisis. The civil action accuses S and P of fraudulently inflating the ratings of mortgage investments, setting them up for the crash that lead to the great recession. The investigation is the focus of today's Business Bottom Line, and here's NPR's Jim Zarroli.
JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: The suit involves mortgage-backed securities that were packaged and sold in huge numbers by Wall Street firms. Companies like Standard and Poor's were supposed to rate these securities on behalf of investors and tell them whether they were safe to buy.
But the suit said the company knowingly issued ratings that were overly optimistic.
Guy Cecala is publisher of Inside Mortgage Finance newsletter.
GUY CECALA: Basically, all of the ratings services put Triple-A ratings on mortgage-backed securities that subsequently went into default, and turned out to be anything but Triple-A rating.
ZARROLI: The suit says Standard and Poor's portrayed its ratings as independent and objective, but they were anything but. Critics have long maintained that the ratings companies had a, kind of, built in conflict of interest - they got paid by the very investment banks that issued most of the mortgage-backed securities. So companies like Standard and Poor's couldn't afford to be too honest in their ratings, or they'd lose out on what had become a very lucrative business. Whatever the motive, ratings companies kept handling out Triple-A ratings and investors kept snapping up the securities they rated.
Economist Lawrence White, of NYU's Stern School of Business, says this added fuel to the fire that was the housing boom.
LAWRENCE WHITE: My best judgment is there was going to be a boom anyway, but the favorable ratings accentuated the process.
ZARROLI: In the years since then the ratings companies have been investigated by state and federal officials. A Congressional committee released emails, suggesting that analysts at the rating agencies were pressured to soft-pedaled the risks they saw in some securities. In a statement released yesterday, Standard and Poor's acknowledged that, like everyone else, it didn't fully understand what was going on in the housing market in those days; and in hindsight, it may have rated some securities too highly. But is says the idea that it knowingly defrauded investors is entirely without legal or factual merit.
Securities lawyer Jacob Frenkel says investigators don't seem to have found enough evidence to build a criminal case against the companies.
JACOB FRENKEL: If any criminal enforcement authority would be able to meet its burden of proof in a criminal case, we likely would have seen a criminal case. That just does not appear to have existed.
ZARROLI: Instead the Justice Department, together with state officials, filed civil charges against Standard and Poor's, which require a lower burden of proof than criminal charges. And for now, at least, the department is not targeting the other two major ratings companies, Moody's and Fitch.
Again, Guy Cecala.
CECALA: I don't think there's any question that you can find evidence S&P, as well as Moody's and Fitch, mishandled the way they place ratings and looked at the collateral of these mortgage-backed securities. What's sort of a surprise is that it's taken the government and/or the states this long to take any action.
ZARROLI: The lawsuit was filed after repeated attempts by U.S. officials to reach a settlement with Standard and Poor's. The New York times reported yesterday that the Justice Department demanded a settlement of at least a billion dollars, which would have wiped out all the annual profits of Standard and Poor's parent company McGraw Hill.
The company balked at that big a settlement, and U.S. officials decided to press ahead with the suit.
Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.
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