Rating agencies have come under fire recently. A number of perceived gaffs haven’t helped the agencies’ credibility (we covered Moody’s changes to its bank rating methodology on this blog), but the biggest concern at present is regarding structured credit.
Some investors have always treated ratings agencies with a degree of scepticism, arguing that there must be a conflict of interest when companies are the ones who pay agencies to rate their own bonds and deals. This scepticism has grown with structured credit, because agencies can earn twice as much as they could for rating a conventional corporate bond. There is also widespread concern that the agencies lack the resources to properly analyse complicated structured credit, because the best brains at the ratings agencies often get snatched up by the investment banks and fund managers.
S&P yesterday hit back, releasing a report entitled “The Covenant Lite Juggernaut is Raising CLO Risks – And Standard & Poor’s is Responding”. The background to this report was that ratings agencies had been criticised over their lack of action over what are perceived to be increasingly risky leveraged loan deals. An increase in risk of leveraged loans meant that the credit ratings given to CLOs, which are asset backed securities backed by a pool of leveraged loans, were perhaps not reflecting the true credit risk. “Covenant Lite” deals, where the legal protections for investors are weaker, worry us (see here for my earlier blog article).
Without going into too much detail, S&P have made changes to their criteria for rating CLOs, including assuming a 10% lower recovery rate for leveraged loans that come with the “covenant lite” tag. While this is an improvement, we remain cautious over covenant lite deals – the great attraction of the leveraged loan asset class to us has always been its seniority and high recovery rates in event of default, and anything that jepodises this makes us nervous.