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Are the Credit Ratings Agencies Out of Control?

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Make no mistake, Moody's decision to put the UK's prized AAA credit rating on negative outlook in February would have sent a sharp shock of panic through the trading floors of the City and of course Westminster.

The City was forced to bat aside accusations from across the Channel at the start of the year as we watched our French neighbours lose their top rating along with Austria and several of the debt-ridden southern European countries. The move by S&P's left the UK standing alongside Germany - the benchmark of a recovering economy - and assured the markets that the Chancellor's budget deficit programme was slowly repairing the damage.

But the revelry didn't last long. Moody's announcement has put the City on alert and the possibility of a downgrade is now not so unlikely. But how much will it actually affect the UK's recovery if we do lose the prized AAA? Looking at America and France, neither seems to have been knocked off their resurgent paths - after all the French downgrade was only from one agency, the other two have maintained their top ratings.

Both S&P's and Moody's announcements though have reaffirmed a view held by many in the City that the ratings agencies are a law unto themselves and need to be reined in; timely then that the Commons Treasury Select Committee begun an investigation into their activity earlier this month.

The problem on the face of it is the lack of competition. The 'big three' - Fitch, Moody's and S&P's - answer to no one and have no other peers. In recent months negative warnings and hints of downgrades have become far too regular and at times the feeling of superiority and omnipotence has reeked from all three of them.

More serious is the belief of many within the financial sector that the original blame for the global financial crisis lies at the collective doorstep of the agencies. After all they were at the heart of the shambles of the toxic mortgage-backed securities that triggered the global recession. It was their AAA ratings awarded to ambiguous financial products backed by risky sub-prime mortgages that helped send markets around the world into freefall.

Yet without any commercial or high-street arms the ratings agencies have escaped largely unscathed and with many of the wider public none the wiser as to their actions - unlike the banks. The calls for stricter regulations on the banking and trading sector have been universal as have the demands to cut bonuses and reduce pay. It's gone so far that Fred Goodwin lost his title. But there has been little to no action against the ratings agencies and certainly no public outcry - not even a protest.

But that shouldn't mean they go unpunished. So what is needed? A complaints commission, an ombudsman maybe; something or someone to oversee the actions of the Big Three and for rules and regulations to be adhered to when issuing downgrades and negative outlooks. This is a great opportunity to implement change, to impose new restrictions on the agencies, and if the Common's Treasury Select Committee doesn't take action then they will have missed a great opportunity.

The European Commission's reform package is a promising start. If successful the new regulation will enforce accountability on the agencies, provide more information to investors and will attempt to reduce conflicts within the ratings process. It will also promote routine swapping of agencies with the purpose of encouraging competition and improving a level playing field.

It all sounds very promising but I can't help but feel what's really required is a public backlash - a larger voice to demand change. Unfortunately while the agencies remain an unknown quantity to many not in the profession, a community outcry seems unlikely, and the agencies will continue to run free.

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