NYT and WAPO Can't Find Out About Franken Amendment on Bond Rating Agencies

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Tuesday, 05 February 2013 05:39

It's so difficult when you run a major national newspaper to find out about the laws passed by Congress and signed by the president. Clearly that would be the conclusion drawn by readers of the NYT and Washington Post's coverage of a suit brought by the Justice Department against S.&P. over its ratings of mortgage backed securities during the housing bubble.

Both pieces note the obvious conflict of interest of having the rating agencies paid by the issuer. This gives the agency an incentive to provide a strong rating in order to continue to get business from the issuer.

The Franken Amendment to the Dodd-Frank bill eliminated this conflict by requiring an issuer to contact the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which would then arrange for a rating agency to be assigned. By taking the hiring decision away from the issuer, the rating agency would no longer have an incentive to falsify its assessment. 

It is incredible that neither article mentioned the amendment. It won an overwhelming majority of votes in the Senate, attracting bi-partisan support. It would have gone into effect with the rest of the bill, except that Barney Frank, then head of the House Financial Services Committee, arranged to delay its enactment by requiring a SEC study (i.e. he had the SEC use taxpayer dollars to figure out what it would mean to have the SEC call a bond rating agency rather than the issuer). 

The SEC did finally complete its study in December of 2012, but the final status of the Franken Amendment is not yet clear. It would be helpful if these papers could hire reporters who know how to find out the status of laws passed by Congress.