Rating Agencies Doing Fine, Thanks

The Lex column in the Financial Times reports that the rating agencies – Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s – are doing financially just fine and, well, even better than fine:

McGraw Hill this week showed the ratings business is on the increase …  Its Standard & Poor’s credit ratings agency, which accounts for the vast majority of the publisher’s profits, produced its first quarterly rise in revenues in two years.

In a business with large fixed costs, any upturn makes a substantial impact on the bottom line. Profitability in McGraw Hill’s financial services division, which includes lower-margin data and research businesses as well as ratings, never hit the lofty peaks of rival Moody’s with an operating margin of some 55 per cent. Nevertheless, S&P still managed to reach a 40 per cent margin, having merely dipped to 34 per cent at the end of 2008.

I have found it remarkable how little scrutiny has been focused on the rating agencies, and how little has been done – sensibly or foolishly – to revamp their incentives and business models.  There was some discussion of cutting off the implicit regulatory monopoly created by regulations specifying their services; I am not sure even that has gone anywhere, though I haven’t checked recently.  However, Lex adds this cheerful thought:

In spite of widespread gnashing of teeth over rating agencies’ role in the crisis, both companies are even thought to have increased their fees this year. Furthermore, proposed regulation looks less onerous than first feared. McGraw Hill estimates that extra regulatory costs, such as more compliance personnel, will be half what it originally thought.

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