Policy Analysis No. 704

Regulation, Market Structure, and Role of the Credit Rating Agencies

During the financial crisis of 2008, the financial markets would have been better served if the credit rating agency industry had been more competitive. We present evidence that suggests the Securities and Exchange Commission’s designation of Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations (NRSROs) inadvertently created a de facto oligopoly, which primarily propped up three firms: Moody’s, S&P, and Fitch. We also explain the rationale behind the NRSRO designation given to credit rating agencies (CRAs) and demonstrate that it was not intended to be an oligopolistic mechanism or to reduce investor due diligence, but rather was intended to protect consumers. Although CRAs were indirectly constrained by their reputation among investors, the lack of competition allowed for greater market complacency. Government regulatory use of credit ratings inflated the market demand for NRSRO ratings, despite the decreasing informational value of credit ratings. It is unlikely that this sort of regulatory framework could result in anything except misaligned incentives among economic actors and distorted market information that provides inaccurate signals to investors and other financial actors. Given the importance of our capital infrastructure and the power of credit rating agencies in our financial markets, and despite the good intentions of the uses of the NRSRO designation, it is not worth the cost and should be abolished. Regulators should work to eliminate regulatory reliance on credit ratings for financial safety and soundness. These regulatory reforms will, in turn, reduce CRA oligopolistic power and the artificial demand for their ratings.

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Mark A. Calabria is the director of financial regulation studies at the Cato Institute. Emily Ekins is a research fellow at the Cato Institute, director of polling at Reason Foundation, and a PhD student at the University of California, Los Angeles.