Home > finance, guest post, modeling, open source tools > Mr. Ratings Reformer Goes to Washington: Some Thoughts on Financial Industry Activism

Mr. Ratings Reformer Goes to Washington: Some Thoughts on Financial Industry Activism

May 22, 2013

This is a guest post by Marc Joffe, the principal consultant at Public Sector Credit Solutions, an organization that provides data and analysis related to sovereign and municipal securities. Previously, Joffe was a Senior Director at Moody’s Analytics for more than a decade.

Note to readers: for a bit of background on the SEC Credit Ratings Roundtable and the Franken Amendment see this recent mathbabe post.

I just returned from Washington after participating in the SEC’s Credit Ratings Roundtable. The experience was very educational, and I wanted to share what I’ve learned with readers interested in financial industry reform.

First and foremost, I learned that the Franken Amendment is dead. While I am not a proponent of this idea – under which the SEC would have set up a ratings agency assignment authority – I do welcome its intentions and mourn its passing. Thus, I want to take some time to explain why I think this idea is dead, and what financial reformers need to do differently if they want to see serious reforms enacted.

The Franken Amendment, as revised by the Dodd Frank conference committee, tasked the SEC with investigating the possibility of setting up a ratings assignment authority and then executing its decision. Within the SEC, the responsibility for Franken Amendment activities fell upon the Office of Credit Ratings (OCR), a relatively new creature of the 2006 Credit Rating Agency Reform Act.

OCR circulated a request for comments – posting the request on its web site and in the federal register – a typical SEC procedure. The majority of serious comments OCR received came from NRSROs and others with a vested interest in perpetuating the status quo or some close approximation thereof. Few comments came from proponents of the Franken Amendment, and some of those that did were inarticulate (e.g., a note from Joe Sixpack of Anywhere, USA saying that rating agencies are terrible and we just gotta do something about them).

OCR summarized the comments in its December 2012 study of the Franken Amendment. Progressives appear to have been shocked that OCR’s work product was not an originally-conceived comprehensive blueprint for a re-imagined credit rating business. Such an expectation is unreasonable. SEC regulators sit in Washington and New York; not Silicon Valley. There is little upside and plenty of political downside to taking major risks. Regulators are also heavily influenced by the folks they regulate, since these are the people they talk to on a day-to-day basis.

Political theorists Charles Lindblom and Aaron Wildavsky developed a theory that explains the SEC’s policymaking process quite well:  it is called incrementalism. Rather than implement brand new ideas, policymakers prefer to make marginal changes by building upon and revising existing concepts.

While I can understand why Progressives think the SEC should “get off its ass” and really fix the financial industry, their critique is not based in the real world.  The SEC is what it is.  It will remain under budget pressure for the forseeable future because campaign donors want to restrict its activities. Staff will always be influenced by financial industry players, and out-of-the-box thinking will be limited by the prevailing incentives.

Proponents of the Franken Amendment and other Progressive reforms have to work within this system to get their reforms enacted.  How?  The answer is simple:  when a request for comment arises they need to stuff the ballot box with varying and well informed letters supporting reform.  The letters need to place proposed reforms within the context of the existing system, and respond to anticipated objections from status quo players. If 20 Progressive academics and Occupy-leaning financial industry veterans had submitted thoughtful, reality-based letters advocating the Franken Amendment, I believe the outcome would have been very different. (I should note that Occupy the SEC has produced a number of comment letters, but they did not comment on the Franken Amendment and I believe they generally send a single letter).

While the Franken Amendment may be dead, I am cautiously optimistic about the lifecycle of my own baby: open source credit rating models. I’ll start by explaining how I ended up on the panel and then conclude by discussing what I think my appearance achieved.

The concept of open source credit rating models is extremely obscure. I suspect that no more than a few hundred people worldwide understand this idea and less than a dozen have any serious investment in it. Your humble author and one person on his payroll, are probably the world’s only two people who actually dedicated more than 100 hours to this concept in 2012.

That said, I do want to acknowledge that the idea of open source credit rating models is not original to me – although I was not aware of other advocacy before I embraced it. Two Bay Area technologists started FreeRisk, a company devoted to open source risk models, in 2009. They folded the company without releasing a product and went on to more successful pursuits. FreeRisk left a “paper” trail for me to find including an article on the P2P Foundation’s wiki. FreeRisk’s founders also collaborated with Cate Long, a staunch advocate of financial markets transparency, to create riski.us – a financial regulation wiki.

In 2011, Cathy O’Neil (a.k.a. Mathbabe) an influential Progressive blogger who has a quantitative finance background ran a post about the idea of open source credit ratings, generating several positive comments. Cathy also runs the Alternative Banking group, an affiliate of Occupy Wall Street that attracts a number of financially literate activists.

I stumbled across Cathy’s blog while Googling “open source credit ratings”, sent her an email, had a positive phone conversation and got an invitation to address her group.  Cathy then blogged about my open source credit rating work. This too was picked up on the P2P Foundation wiki, leading ultimately to a Skype call with the leader of the P2P Foundation, Michel Bauwens. Since then, Michel – a popularizer of progressive, collaborative concepts – has offered a number of suggestions about organizations to contact and made a number of introductions.

Most of my outreach attempts on behalf of this idea – either made directly or through an introduction – are ignored or greeted with terse rejections.  I am not a proven thought leader, am not affiliated with a major research university and lack a resume that includes any position of high repute or authority. Consequently, I am only a half-step removed from the many “crackpots” that send around their unsolicited ideas to all and sundry.

Thus, it is surprising that I was given the chance to address the SEC Roundtable on May 14. The fact that I was able to get an invitation speaks well of the SEC’s process and is thus worth recounting. In October 2012, SEC Commissioner Dan Gallagher spoke at the Stanford Rock Center on Corporate Governance.  He mentioned that the SEC was struggling with the task of implementing Dodd Frank Section 939A, which calls for the replacement of credit ratings in federal regulations, such as those that govern asset selection by money market funds.

After his talk, I pitched him the idea of open source credit ratings as an alternative creditworthiness standard that would satisfy the intentions of 939A. He suggested that I write to Tom Butler, head of the Office of Credit Ratings (OCR) and copy him. This led to a number of phone calls and ultimately a presentation to OCR staff in New York in January.  Staff members that joined the meeting were engaged and asked good questions. I connected my proposal to an earlier SEC draft regulation which would have required structured finance issuers to publish cashflow waterall models in Python – a popular open source language.

I walked away from the meeting with the perception that, while they did not want to reinvent the industry, OCR staff were sincerely interested in new ideas that might create incremental improvements. That meeting led to my inclusion in the third panel of the Credit Ratings Roundtable.

For me, the panel discussion itself was mostly positive. Between the opening statement, questions and discussion, I probably had about 8 minutes to express my views.  I put across all the points I hoped to make and even received a positive comment from one of the other panelists. On the downside, only one commissioner attended my panel – whereas all five had been present at the beginning of the day when Al Franken, Jules Kroll, Doug Peterson and other luminaries held the stage.

The roundtable generated less media attention than I expected, but I got an above average share of the limited coverage relative to the day’s other 25 panelists. The highlight was a mention in the Wall Street Journal in its pre-roundtable coverage.

Perhaps the fact that I addressed the SEC will make it easier for me to place op-eds and get speaking engagements to promote the open source ratings concept. Only time will tell. Ultimately, someone with a bigger reputation than mine will need to advocate this concept before it can progress to the next level.

Also, the idea is now part of the published record of SEC deliberations. The odds of it getting into a proposed regulation remain long in the near future, but these odds are much shorter than they were prior to the roundtable.

Political scientist John Kingdon coined the term “policy entrepreneurs” to describe people who look for and exploit opportunities to inject new ideas into the policy discussion.  I like to think of myself as a policy entrepreneur, although I have a long way to go before I become a successful one. If you have read this far and also have strongly held beliefs about how the financial system should improve, I suggest you apply the concepts of incrementalism and policy entrepreneurship to your own activism.

  1. May 22, 2013 at 12:48 pm

    Informative Post. It will help me on my thesis. Thanks.

  2. May 22, 2013 at 5:48 pm

    I don’t understand credit ratings agencies at all. If you can’t gauge the risk in an investment, what business do you have investing in it?

    • May 24, 2013 at 4:35 pm

      A lot of people share this view but I think expert opinion can be useful. Investment banks produce equity research. These buy or sell recommendations also suffer from bias yer few question whether equity research serves a socisl purpose.

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