My Lords, I bring to the House's attention Sovereign Credit Ratings: Shooting the Messenger?, a report of the European Union's Sub-Committee on Economic and Financial Affairs, and International Trade, which I have the honour to chair.
As noble Lords will be aware, credit rating agencies have had a very high profile since the banking crisis erupted in 2008, in relation to which there has been widespread and, in the committee's view, deserved criticism of their role. When the banking crisis hit, the rating agencies were revealed to have woefully underestimated the risk that complex financial products, such as mortgage-backed securities, posed. Thus we were told in the evidence that some securities that carried an AAA rating one day were downgraded to a CCC the next. Indeed, many commentators accused the rating agencies of contributing to the severity of the crisis.
In the crisis aftermath, many sovereigns, as well as the European Union, sought to sharpen regulation of the credit rating industry. In the European Union this led to the creation of the European Securities and Markets Authority, or ESMA. With the reputation of the credit rating agencies reputation yet to recover, many people were quick to blame them for exacerbating the European Union sovereign debt crisis after it intensified in 2009. They were accused of failing to predict the crisis, and then of precipitating it by downgrading the ratings of euro area sovereigns too far and too fast. In the midst of this, the Commission in November 2010 launched a public consultation to discuss the need for further regulation in the credit rating industry and invited views on proposals to foster a European credit rating foundation which might challenge the oligopoly of the major rating agencies.
In April 2011, and in the light of these developments, our committee launched this inquiry, seeking to analyse the interaction between the credit rating agencies and sovereign debt, with a particular focus on the role of the CRAs in the euro area crisis. We took evidence during May and June from representatives of the "big three" rating agencies-Fitch Ratings, Moody's and Standard & Poor's; from representatives of the OECD and the International Centre for Financial Regulation; from Dr Wolf Klinz, the European Parliament rapporteur; and from the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Mark Hoban. We also received a welter of additional useful written evidence, for which we are grateful. Our report was published in July and we are pleased that the Government's response now brings this debate to the Chamber tonight.
The committee concluded that the rating agencies could not be accused of precipitating the euro area crisis. Their downgrades, in reality, reflect the seriousness of the problems that some member states currently face. Indeed, in most cases the CRAs followed, rather than led, market sentiment. We acknowledged that downgrades can, in certain circumstances, exercise a disproportionate influence on markets, exacerbating existing fragile situations. However, whether this happened in relation to the euro area crisis is more difficult to determine. Yet the committee did conclude that the credit rating agencies conspicuously failed to challenge the assumptions on which their assessment of the sustainability of sovereign debt was based in the years running up to the crisis. They palpably failed to identify risks in some member states which began building up long before the crisis hit. However, they were not alone in that misjudgment.
The committee has two central concerns apart from the ones that I have expressed. The first relates to the extent, or otherwise, of competition in the industry. We concluded that the credit rating agency industry is, at present, an oligopoly. The stranglehold of the largely United States-based big three has proved impossible to break. This is not for want of trying on the part of some. As I have already mentioned, the Commission has floated the possibility of the establishment of a European credit rating agency, whose start-up costs could be,
"wholly or partially covered by the public sector", although over time,
"public investment could ... be phased out".
The European Parliament Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs raised the possibility of an independent, non-publicly funded European credit rating foundation. We concluded that there was a compelling argument for a thorough competition inquiry into the structure and regulation of the credit rating industry, but we also felt that the European Union should not fund, either initially or in the long term, a credit rating agency. An EU-sponsored credit rating agency would simply lack credibility with the markets.
Our second concern relates to the use of credit ratings. Sovereign ratings can play a useful role that contributes to the smooth, efficient working of the worldwide sovereign debt market. However, there is a compelling need to reduce the mechanistic role that credit ratings play in regulations, investment mandates and private contracts. This hardwiring of ratings leads to knee-jerk rating changes which can cause deleterious cliff-edge effects, herd behaviour among investors and systemic disruption. Indeed, there is an overwhelming imperative for investors to see sovereign ratings for what they ultimately are: subjective provisions that rely heavily on the personal judgments of rating agency staff. Investors should not follow ratings blindly but should view them as opinions that need to be balanced and confirmed by other market indicators. In the end, responsibility for investment decisions ultimately lies with investors, and they should bear in mind the principle of "caveat emptor"-buyer beware-when deciding how much reliance to place on the judgment of rating agencies.
Where, then, do we stand today? We have received the Government's response to our report and I am heartened that they agree with so many of the Committee's recommendations. I am sure that the Minister will want to elaborate on the Government's position.
The question now turns to the Commission. Given that ESMA has only recently taken over the direct regulation of credit rating agencies, we argued in the committee that the new system should be given time to bed down and its effectiveness should be assessed before further changes are made. Yet Commissioner Barnier has pressed the case for further regulation of rating agencies for some time now and today-as if to prove the timeliness of this evening's debate and the fact that he has obviously read our report-he launched the Commission's latest proposals. Significant among them is the decision to postpone the proposal to suspend the credit ratings of sovereigns receiving funds. I would like the Minister to respond to that in particular. I underline the fact that, as I understand it, the suggestion is only to postpone the proposal. The Commission also has ambitions to reduce the overreliance on credit ratings, to improve the quality of the rating process and to promote the general obligation on investors to do their own assessment. I hope that the Minister will respond to those three ambitions.
There is also the question that ESMA might be communicated with by the credit rating agencies. That flies in the face of what we said on the committee-that 12 hours is a sufficient break and we do not require the three-day break that might confuse the markets even more, because something might be said out of turn. We need more diversity and stricter independence of the credit rating agencies and, again, I ask the Minister to respond to the question of competition.
This is an important issue. Recently the credit rating of France was reduced from AAA, with deleterious effects on the markets. We need to be serious about this. I hope that we can have a good debate and that the Minister will be able to respond to the Commission's proposals.