Washington D.C., Jan. 21, 2015 — The Securities and Exchange Commission today announced a series of federal securities law violations by Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services involving fraudulent misconduct in its ratings of certain commercial mortgage-backed securities (CMBS).
S&P agreed to pay more than $58 million to settle the SEC’s charges, plus an additional $19 million to settle parallel cases announced today by the New York Attorney General’s office ($12 million) and the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office ($7 million).
“Investors rely on credit rating agencies like Standard & Poor’s to play it straight when rating complex securities like CMBS,” said Andrew J. Ceresney, Director of the SEC Enforcement Division. “But Standard & Poor’s elevated its own financial interests above investors by loosening its rating criteria to obtain business and then obscuring these changes from investors. These enforcement actions, our first-ever against a major ratings firm, reflect our commitment to aggressively policing the integrity and transparency of the credit ratings process.”
The SEC issued three orders instituting settled administrative proceedings against S&P. One order, in which S&P made certain admissions, addressed S&P’s practices in its conduit fusion CMBS ratings methodology. S&P’s public disclosures affirmatively misrepresented that it was using one approach when it actually used a different methodology in 2011 to rate six conduit fusion CMBS transactions and issue preliminary ratings on two more transactions. As part of this settlement, S&P agreed to take a one-year timeout from rating conduit fusion CMBS.
Another SEC order found that after being frozen out of the market for rating conduit fusion CMBS in late 2011, S&P sought to re-enter that market in mid-2012 by overhauling its ratings criteria. To illustrate the relative conservatism of its new criteria, S&P published a false and misleading article purporting to show that its new credit enhancement levels could withstand Great Depression-era levels of economic stress. S&P’s research relied on flawed and inappropriate assumptions and was based on data that was decades removed from the severe losses of the Great Depression. According to the SEC’s order, S&P’s original author of the study expressed concerns that the firm’s CMBS group had turned the article into a “sales pitch” for the new criteria, and that the removal of certain information from the article could lead to him “sit[ting] in front of [the] Department of Justice or the SEC.” The SEC’s order further finds that S&P failed to accurately describe certain aspects of its new criteria in the formal publication setting forth their operation. Without admitting or denying the findings in the order, S&P agreed to publicly retract the false and misleading Great Depression-related study and correct the inaccurate descriptions in the publication about its criteria.