Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

What matters in the context of sovereign debt boils down to three main things. The first is the oligopolistic nature of the credit rating agency market, which is dominated by the three main players. Such a concentration of power is uncomfortable to say the least. The second is the hard-wiring of credit ratings into the regulatory system and the systemic risk that goes with it. The third is the issue of what regulatory constraints are warranted in respect of the methodology, content and timing of credit ratings. This will inevitably include a degree of political judgment overlaying the economic analysis.

As to the nature of the market, I think it is something of a natural oligopoly. An open market for credit ratings will lead inevitably to concentration on a small core of players with the skills, experience and global reach to do the job. In this respect, the market is similar to that of financial auditors. This is one area where I question the Government's view that one should be,

to quote their response to our report. Lowering barriers is a necessary but insufficient approach when there is a natural and entrenched monopoly of this kind. So if Commissioner Barnier wants to rotate the use of agencies by limiting the frequency with which an issuer can use the same agency, he is broadly on the right track. The promotion of competition in this market will mean not just removing potential barriers to entry but the direct handicapping of the large incumbents, although the calibration might need some work. Incidentally, rotation would not bear directly upon unsolicited sovereign debt issues, where potential conflicts of interest do not apply.

As to the phasing out of the hard-wiring of credit ratings in regulatory structures or in the mandates of institutional investors, everyone seems agreed on the objective, whether they are regulators or rating agencies. However, it is one of the things that is easier said than done, as there is a real risk of throwing out the baby with the bath-water, or at least of unintended consequences. One thought that occurs to me is to take a leaf out of the book of UK corporate governance here and apply the principle of "comply or explain". If minimum levels of credit rating were not mandatory requirements but subject to the comply or explain rule, there would be at least some leeway for financial institutions to use their own judgment, subject to their explanations satisfying the relevant regulators. That limited exercise of judgment might just put a brake on the automatic mass selling of a security that can follow a downgrading which breaches a mandatory requirement. It is a passing thought that the Government might like to bear in mind.

Finally, and specifically with regard to sovereign debt, what regulatory constraints are genuinely warranted as to the method, content and timing of credit ratings? The sensitivity in certain parts of the eurozone to a credit rating agency having the temerity to pass judgment not just on the credit-worthiness of a nation's sovereign debt but, by extension, on the competence and effectiveness of those who are trying to prop it up is very clear. But that is no excuse for what one might call retaliatory

15 Nov 2011 : Column 667

regulation-and there is a sense of retaliation in some of the possible measures being aired by the Commission and others.

In terms of principle, there is no question that the agencies need to be properly registered and subject to some degree of regulation, and it is clearly appropriate for ESMA to insist on transparency of methodology. However, to my mind the recent suggestions that ESMA should effectively determine in advance which methodologies are, or are not, to be deployed is right over the top and an undue interference in the market.

As to the Commission's thankfully postponed suggestion that ESMA should have the power to ban or suspend credit rating when a country is in negotiations or is covered by an international solidarity programme with the EU or IMF, as we said in our report, and has been said this evening, that smacks of censorship. Perhaps the Commission would like to suspend the "Lex" column in the Financial Times on the same grounds. It also smacks of naivety; as the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes pointed out, a ban could easily put the financial markets into a spin. Other commentators would inevitably fill the gap, and the whole exercise could end up being self-defeating. No doubt the Government will do their best to keep that one at bay, should the postponement prove only temporary.

Credit ratings of sovereign debt matter-hence all the sensitivity surrounding them. If you will pardon my lapse into Franco-German, some may have experienced a brief "frisson de Schadenfreude" when Standard & Poor's inadvertently downgraded French sovereign debt earlier in the month. But it was really no laughing matter. The credit rating agencies may not have precipitated, or even significantly exacerbated, the eurozone crisis, but the oligopoly's sins of omission or commission can do real damage. It follows that the power and dominance of the three large agencies need to be addressed, but to my mind that is best done through promoting structural change in the market and not by more regulation of a retaliatory kind.

8.55 pm

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My Lords, I join in the warm congratulations to my noble friend Lord Harrison on securing the debate. I am a member of the European Union Select Committee, which is very ably chaired by my noble friend Lord Roper.

I joined the committee just as this report was being concluded, and although I welcome the report, I feel it does not go far enough. I disagree with much of the essence or strength of what has been said up to now. Some of the action of the credit rating agencies has, frankly, been scandalous and it needs more urgent action. As the Minister knows, I have raised it two or three times at Question Time, and although the Minister has been reasonably helpful and wrote to me recently about it, I am not sure that he or the Government are really seized of the concern that is widely held about the action of credit rating agencies and the urgency of action that is necessary.

It is quite ridiculous that three US-based agencies have 95 per cent of the global credit rating agency work. They are private companies, with their own shareholders, their own owners, who often benefit

15 Nov 2011 : Column 668

from the decisions made by those agencies. Whether my noble friend Lord Myners-who has disappeared suddenly-thinks they should get any credence or not, they are given great credence, not just by the media, but by a whole range of other people. Yet look at their record. Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel prize winner, said that the subprime crisis would simply not have happened without the CRAs' contribution. He says:

"They were the party that performed the alchemy that converted the securities from F-rated to A-rated. The banks could not have done what they did without the complicity of the rating agencies".

It was that subprime crisis which started the global financial crisis that we are currently in. Look at the accuracy of their forecasts. They gave positive ratings to AIG and to Lehman Brothers right up until the very moment of their collapse. What an astonishingly poor record that was.

I disagree with the report when it says, "Do not shoot the messenger-they did not exacerbate this situation". The inherently pro-cyclical way of functioning aggravated the European sovereign debt crisis and pushed several European countries to the brink of bankruptcy. For example, explaining the reasons for Italy's downgrade on 17 September this year, Standard & Poor's put forward that,

Of course, interest rates would only rise even further as a result of the downgrade by S&P, so it exacerbates the problem and you get this vicious cycle downwards. Of course the creditors are happy, and some of the people behind Standard & Poor's might be making quite a bit of money out of it.

In the current European context, it is questionable where the true responsibility lies for the austerity and the dire economic consequences we see in nearly all of the European countries in the eurozone, and the social consequences resulting from that. Are democratically elected Governments really able to decide their fiscal and economic policies in full sovereignty and independence, or do Moody's, S&P's, and Fitch effectively assume true economic power in the European Union? I think that is a question that needs answering, and I hope we will get a response from the Government in relation to that.

Let us then go to the conflict of interest of credit rating agencies. As I said earlier, they are private companies, and as such their primary purpose is to seek profit and to enhance their market position. The experience of the recent crisis, as well as testimony of former employees of the CRAs, has shown that managerial pressure on analytical units is used in order to modify outcomes and to decide on ratings models which are more likely to enlarge the CRA's market share in this respect. Accuracy would not seem to be the prime objective of the credit rating agencies.

I think the answer-I disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, on this-is that we need to look to the European Union. If this Government were prepared to consider regulation and to deal with this as far as the United Kingdom was concerned, I would welcome that and look at it, but they have ruled that out. The noble Baroness said that she wants less regulation; that is why we need to look to Europe to see some ways of protecting ourselves. I favour the establishment

15 Nov 2011 : Column 669

of a European independent credit rating agency. First, such an agency would ensure that we become less dependent on the CRAs' opinions and would use alternatives to risk assessment in legislation and regulation. Secondly, I would argue that competition between CRAs should be promoted, as some have said already, by lowering the barriers to entry to the market and by increasing transparency. Thirdly, the inherent conflict of interest which I have described in the predominant current business model would be bypassed through sound measures to combine different business models. Rating states and companies needs different criteria; using the same criteria for them does not work.

I would argue that the European Union has the power. I get concerned at this growing Euroscepticism that seems to be infecting both Houses of this Parliament. We saw it with the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, and, I am afraid, with my noble friend Lord Myners. I am glad that my very good and noble friend Lord Roper is here. He is a long-standing supporter of the European Union and we should be enthusiastic still about what can be achieved collectively. Just a few days after Remembrance Day, we ought to remember why the European Union was set up in the first place. The European Union has an unequivocal mandate in anti-trust matters, determined by the treaty and by directive 2003/6/EC on insider dealing and market manipulation and its amendments, so it has the power to take action in relation to this. I would argue that it should take action.

In summary, the subprime crisis would simply not have happened without credit rating agencies. In the 10 years up to 2007, the revenues of credit rating agencies rose by 900 per cent. That is what they are in it for-to make money. The ratings delivered by credit rating agencies constrain decisions taken by Governments, by pension funds, by banks and by the ECB, because of the credibility given to them. As I said earlier, the three US-based credit rating agencies share 95 per cent of the market. Their business model is riddled with conflicts of interest, and I would argue that fixing credit rating requires tighter regulation of existing private agencies, as well as the establishment of a European independent credit rating agency.

I am not anticipating that the Minister will agree with what I have suggested, but I certainly hope that it will get a positive response from my colleague and noble friend Lord Eatwell, the shadow Minister.

9.04 pm

Lord Kerr of Kinlochard: I will not follow the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, into his trenchant criticism because most of it seems to apply to the role of the credit rating agencies in respect to private issuers; I will stick to the sovereign risk role which is discussed in the admirable report from the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Harrison. I was a member of his committee and he has presented our report clearly. I have virtually nothing to add on the substance.

I do not believe that the credit rating agencies performed very well in the nine or 10 years leading up to the financial crisis. It is very odd that Ireland stayed on an AAA rating from 1999 to 2009-an extraordinary

15 Nov 2011 : Column 670

rating-and it is pretty odd that Greece was left by Moody's unchanged from 2003 to 2009 and then shot down nine notches in under a year and a half.

One of the minor elements in the Commission package of proposals announced today may be quite useful: the idea that there should be more frequent reviews. It suggests six months, which might be worth considering. Most of the other bits in today's package that seem to be good are the omissions from the rumours of what would be in the package. I do not at all agree with the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, that it would have been a good idea that the Commission should, as it floated in the summer, put forward the idea of an EU-sponsored, public-sector-paid-for, CRA. That would be a very bad idea for the reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, has explained. As our report points out, it would be assumed in the markets that,

I am puzzled about the present situation of the other very bad idea-it was not floated before we wrote this report, and therefore is not in this report-of the ban on credit ratings, and the power of ESMA to impose temporary exceptional bans. That seems to me to be a rotten idea for a lot of reasons, particularly the one given by the noble Lady, Baroness Noakes, and the noble Lord, Lord Vallance. The moment a credit rating agency signalled that it was under a ban-and it would have to do so, so that the market was not misled into thinking that the previous rating was its considered judgment as of that day and in future-the market would at once react severely, with a panic sell-off of the relevant sovereign debt.

I am very glad to know how the Minister rates these strange events in Brussels today. It looks as if there was a debate in the Commission, and Commissioner Barnier did not win. The text that it has put out today, which explains the draft directive and the draft regulation, says that ESMA will be granted the power to ban sovereign ratings, although such bans would be temporary, exceptional, and subject to strict conditions. In the press release, Monsieur Barnier says,

"The possible suspension of sovereign ratings is a complex issue which ... merits further consideration".

I disagree. It is straightforward, it is black and white, and it is a rotten idea. I hope that the postponement is sine die, and that the Minister may be able to throw some light on that.

There is, in a way, a philosophical problem here. It has been inherent in a lot of things in the European Union since the beginning. Monsieur Barnier says today in his press release that, ratings,

Oh yes they are. That is exactly what they are. We say in our report that investors should not rely on them,

We say caveat emptor should rule. That is because we believe in markets. You could caricature the Barnier philosophy as Colbertian. Ours you could perhaps overwrite as Adam Smith. On one side we have a dirigiste philosophy, and on the other we have the invisible hand. That debate has existed on a lot of much more important matters than this one, and on

15 Nov 2011 : Column 671

the whole it is going the right way. The arrival of the Scandinavians and the eastern Europeans has meant that the Colbertians are definitely a minority in the European Union now. I hope the postponement of the idea of suspension means that this issue is also going the right way. The press reports that in the debate in the Commission the British and Swedish commissioners were arguing against the proposal, and that seems plausible. Possibly the debate in the Commission is going the right way because of the admirable report produced by the noble Lord, Lord Harrison. Let us say it could certainly be a factor.

I have a little time left and I want to use the rest of it to raise a slightly wider issue. In the financial crisis and the subsequent lessons-learnt exercises such as the G20, there was general agreement on the need for changes in financial regulation. For EU members, that means changes in EU regulation. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, that the Commission is doing its job when it produces drafts. The one produced today is minor, peripheral and not very important. Some of them are very important indeed. Some of them are very silly. In my view, the Tobin tax proposal is very silly and likely to fail for that reason. Some of them are a bit Colbertian and need to be exposed to a good Adam Smith critique, but they are not cooked up on a whim.

This country was part of the international consensus on the need for changes and the Government in whom the noble Lord, Lord Myners, played such a key role was part of that consensus. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Myners, that Michel Barnier is a serious politician who had a long career as an elected politician in France and has had previous successful terms as a commissioner. We should not regard Barnier as a figure of fun. He is not a figure of fun. Nor should we regard some of these regulations as daggers aimed at the heart of London. They are not an anti-British conspiracy. Of course, since they are about financial regulation and the London market is the biggest and most important European market, they are particularly relevant to London.

It is very important that this country plays a central part in the legislative process, making sure that the voice of Adam Smith is properly heard. That might not happen if we were to come to be seen as unconstructive and to describe ourselves as sceptics; if we were seen to be hectoring and unsympathetic in the current debate about the eurozone; if we were showing that we were unaware of what the German constitutional court says, or even what the treaties say; if we were seen to be criticising our partners for prevarication and pusillanimity and delay. They are dealing with a very serious problem. Remember the parable of the bacon and eggs. The 17 eurozone members are the pigs; the 10 non-eurozone members are the hens. Our contribution might be quite useful; theirs is a matter of life and death. This is their currency we are talking about. If, unlike some of the other 10 non-members, we are absolutely determined not to provide any eggs, perhaps we would do well not to cluck quite so much. Perhaps a period of silence, as a great Prime Minister once said, might be called for.

Diplomacy often consists of getting someone else to put forward our ideas as his. He cannot do that if we have already shouted about them aggressively in

15 Nov 2011 : Column 672

public, and he will not want to do it if we have previously lambasted him for not acting on them already. I do not expect the Minister to respond to these thoughts but I hope he will take them back with him as he wends his weary way back to Great George Street, where I used to work, and make my successors think about them.

9.14 pm

Lord Monks: My Lords, it is a puzzle to me, as it is to some of you, that the three major credit rating agencies, which have made such great errors of judgment in recent years, managed to survive and to prosper. Yet that is the story of the big three, and despite their level of failure investors certainly take notice of their assessments. I can sympathise with what my noble friend Lord Myners said about perhaps not taking them so seriously, but the reality is that many people do and they are a significant influence. I am afraid that we cannot belittle them and pretend that they are a marginal influence. At the very least they are an alibi for investors, with their boards, to say, "Well, it got AAA ratings", or whatever it was on a particular investment that has gone wrong.

Let us look at their record briefly. Enron was rated AAA. In addition, there were the sub-prime mortgages mentioned by my noble friend Lord Foulkes. The display of a near-fatal lack of curiosity about the people to whom sub-prime mortgages were being sold-mainly people who were low paid and in precarious work-in the United States, was curious, to say the least. Somehow, it was forgotten that there was a risk to those people on the margins of home ownership if interest rates rose a bit and real estate prices fell. The credit rating agencies missed that point. A lot of people missed a lot of points in the economic crisis, as we know, but the credit rating agencies were somewhere at the heart of what went on. They were not on the margins in the C-stream, making comments that people took little note of.

Now the agencies are passing judgments on the troubled eurozone countries. I do not think that they are doing so with much sensitivity to the consequences of their judgments. Several noble Lords referred to the mistake about the downgrade of France last week. The mistake was corrected promptly, but that correction has proved insufficient to quell nervous markets, which had already been betting that France would soon lose its coveted AAA rating. The announcement of the downgrade, therefore, should have been very carefully checked before the judgment was given in the first place, given France's linchpin position in the eurozone crisis. It clearly was not checked.

Before 2008, credit rating agencies gave dodgy products the benefit of nearly any doubt, provided they were being paid by the issuers of the debt. Now they seem to be compensating for their earlier misjudgments with strict assessments of the sovereign debt of individual countries. I do not believe that there is a conspiracy to do down Europe or the euro. But I do believe that incompetent businesses in a key area like this should pay a price and not fly free.

I congratulate the European Union Committee on the way that this was presented by my noble friend Lord Harrison, and on the analysis, which hits the

15 Nov 2011 : Column 673

right note about these agencies. I am more sceptical about the central recommendation, that a more competitive environment will be enough to raise standards. It is obvious that a more competitive environment-as the noble Lord, Lord Vallance, said-could lead to a bidding war between agencies to curry favour with their potential customers.

I do not share the scepticism that several noble Lords expressed about the European Commission proposals. I am not quite sure exactly what the status is of the proposals that were issued this afternoon, but I would not rule out the idea that agencies' conflicts of interests could be better regulated. Nor would I rule out the idea that agencies might refrain from action during the rescue of a particular country with sovereign debt problems. It is fairly clear that a country in such a position is already in big trouble, without Standard & Poor's coming along and possibly giving an inaccurate judgment on the situation that the country finds itself in.

I would like to see a register of past performance of credit rating agencies-where they have been right or wrong. That would aid transparency in what is a difficult and risky area.

The other proposal the European Commission was set on-whether it is in the final proposals remains to be seen-was the idea of a civil action in the event of bad advice or a bad rating. People in professions have to pay a price if they are negligent in some way. I do not think that there should be a rush to judgment, or a rush to say that this is another example of Europe trying to barge into the sacred fields of the City of London. The City of London's future cannot be as a greater Monaco-slightly offshore-if it is to thrive and meet the top standards in the country. It should be welcoming good standards, not appearing, as it often does, to be pushing them away. I do not agree with my noble friend Lord Myners in his judgment of Commissioner Barnier.

I ask the committee, in its future work, to look carefully at the proposals of the Commission to add to its own. We can perhaps find some degree of unity. The Government's position was reasonably positive: to place a tighter rein on the agencies and develop a more reliable system than the current dangerous oligopoly.

9.20 pm

Lord Eatwell: My Lords, a great strength of this report, on which my noble friend Lord Harrison is to be congratulated, is that it distinguishes clearly between the role that rating agencies play in the markets for private securities and the role that they play in the sovereign debt markets. In private markets, rating agencies provide a relatively simple rating for what are often mathematically very complicated financial instruments. Without this sort of interpretation, the markets in complex products could not operate. The role of the rating agencies is to provide confidence to the buyers. Unfortunately, in the recent past that confidence was seriously misplaced, as my noble friends Lord Foulkes and Lord Monks both commented.

However, as the report makes clear, and as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, pointed out, the task of rating agencies in respect of sovereign debt is quite different.

15 Nov 2011 : Column 674

Sovereign debt instruments are typically fairly simple; they are standard bonds of fixed duration. In this instance, the necessary rating skills are quite different from those needed in unpicking a complex statistical model. First, they consist of a devotion to whatever is the conventional economic wisdom of the time. It is convention, not good economics, that matters and often drives markets. Secondly, the sovereign appraisal should include an assessment of the political and economic controversy within and between sovereign states. Here, political fashion inevitably plays a role in determining whether any given package of economic policies is deemed sound or not. As we in this country know to our cost, the current fashion is for austerity-today's cure for all economic ills.

It is not at all obvious, as the report acknowledges, that the rating agencies have any particular superiority in evaluating sovereign risks over any intelligent investor, as my noble friend Lord Myners emphasised. If the role of rating agencies is so straightforward, why are they of any importance at all in the discussion of sovereign debt? Neither the report nor, disappointingly, the Government's response addresses this core question. If, as the report's title suggests, rating agencies are but the messenger, what is the origin of the message that they bear? To put it another way, if they are but the symptom-distressing and perhaps worth treating in itself, but not fundamental-what is the nature of the disease? It is in the light of that more basic issue that we should judge the Government's response.

The basic issue has two dimensions: the development of the international bond market over the past three or four decades and the particular design of the sovereign bond market in the eurozone. The current structure and scale of international bond markets are a relatively recent phenomenon. For example, today the annual value of cross-border transactions in UK sovereign bonds comfortably exceeds 1,000 per cent of UK GDP. In 1971, the comparable value was nil. A similar explosion of cross-border activity is to be found in the sovereign bond markets of all G7 countries other than Japan. Into this environment of huge cross-border flows is thrust the eurozone, an economic entity larger than the United States of America. The sheer scale of the eurozone economy ensures that any significant bond fund manager anywhere in the world who is seeking to diversify exposure must have major holdings of US dollar bonds and sovereign bonds denominated in euros. However, whereas exposure to the dollar may be obtained by investing in US treasuries, exposure to the euro may be obtained by investing in any of the various eurozone sovereign bonds. Investors have a choice as to which euro sovereign to hold-a choice that is likely to be informed by their estimate of risk and return, and influenced to a greater or lesser degree by the rating agencies. This is a perfect structure for costless speculation and costless hedging, leading to huge flows between euro sovereigns and exposing any given sovereign to almost unlimited speculative pressure via naked trades. This is the disease.

Let me put the matter another way. The state of California, comprising 13 per cent of the US economy, is bankrupt. This has no impact on the US bond market. Greece, comprising 2 per cent of the eurozone economy, is similarly compromised, with disastrous

15 Nov 2011 : Column 675

destabilising consequences for the eurozone as a whole. It is against this background of a huge international bond market and a serious design flaw in the eurozone that the Government's response to the report should be judged.

Do the Government's proposals, such as they are, help to suppress the symptoms, or do they provide a guide to tackling the disease? The Government rather downplay the report's criticism of the rating agencies' performance prior to the sovereign crisis in the eurozone. The report is forthright:

"The valid charge against the rating agencies ... is ... that they failed ... to identify risks in some Member States".

The Government's response ignores this conclusion altogether and focuses instead on the need to share "factually correct information". Can the Minister explain why the Government do not share the committee's views on the failings of the rating agencies prior to the crisis?

On the symptoms, the Government are surely right to support measures to reduce hard-wiring of ratings into legislation rules and guidance. Yet the Government's statement that they believe that,

is surely one of the more vacuous platitudes of recent times. The Government's support for greater transparency in the methodologies of the rating agencies, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Vallance, is likely to make matters worse rather than better, by increasing volatility as traders, knowing the methodologies, anticipate ratings changes.

In contrast to the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, the Government express enthusiasm for greater regulation of the ratings agencies. As was pointed out, the Government signed up to this at the G20. Will the Minister tell us what regulatory steps the Government propose and explain how these steps will enhance the smooth operation of sovereign bond markets? What is most striking about the Government's response is that it makes no attempt whatever to locate the role of the rating agencies in the context of the overall operation of the eurozone sovereign debt market. That, after all, was the topic of the report. Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne have repeatedly urged the eurozone Governments towards action, without spelling out exactly what action they propose. Perhaps the Minister will help fill the void in government thinking this evening by telling us what steps the Government propose should be taken to stabilise the eurozone bond market and where the rating agencies fit in to the Government's plans.

9.28 pm

The Commercial Secretary to the Treasury (Lord Sassoon): My Lords, I start by thanking your Lordships for a thorough and insightful debate on the role of the sovereign credit rating agencies. I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, and the members of EU Sub-Committee A, on Economic and Financial Affairs and International Trade, for their report. It is a report of considerable importance as we continue to live with the consequences of a financial crisis in which credit rating agencies played a significant role, and as we cope with a sovereign debt crisis in which they continue to have a key role.

15 Nov 2011 : Column 676

The Government believe that the report contains a number of valuable insights, with which they largely agree. We have had a surprising alliance of dissenting voices, starting with the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, who spoke in his characteristically vigorous style. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Myners, did not hear that analysis of the credit rating agency scene, which differed completely from the one that he gave. The noble Lord, Lord Monks, was also a dissenting voice. In a rather different way, the thoughtful analysis of the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, came to some different conclusions. However, the Government believe that your Lordships' report is very valuable and will continue to inform the European-led decisions.

We are firmly of the view that credit rating agency reform is needed. However, as the committee rightly highlights, it is also important to remember that credit rating agencies play a critical role in efficient financial markets by providing independent assessments of creditworthiness. Since the financial crisis, Europe has already agreed new regulation on CRAs, which has come into effect. Therefore, today's new proposals constitute a third round of proposals coming out of Europe since the crisis. I should say at this point that the subject of the debate is for the Government to respond to your Lordships' committee. I understand that many of the questions concern the European proposals that have emerged just this afternoon. I will address them as far as I can but your Lordships will appreciate the shortness of time in this debate and the fact that my first duty tonight is to respond to the committee's report. However, we have had a third round of proposals from Europe today.

As has been noted, CRAs are now supervised under the European Securities and Markets Authority and must comply with raised standards on methodology, conflicts of interest and disclosure. That is business that is already agreed. While this represents substantial progress, the Government believe that further CRA reform should focus on three aspects which closely reflect the committee's overall conclusions. First, it is vital to reduce overreliance on CRA ratings. That point has been made by a number of speakers this evening. We strongly agree with the report that investors must ultimately take responsibility for their own investment decisions-caveat emptor, indeed. The hard-wiring of ratings in legislation, or in the internal risk assessments of financial institutions, leads, among other things, to cliff-edge effects and instability.

Secondly-this was also recommended by the committee-we support increased disclosure of ratings assumptions and process, and of underlying assets embedded in complex products. This will encourage investors to use CRA ratings in a more sophisticated manner. It will also make CRAs more accountable for their ratings.

Finally, we support fostering competition in the credit rating agencies, but without compromising ratings quality. We agree with the committee's recommendation against the public provision of ratings. Instead, we favour reducing reputational barriers to entry such as through initiatives to establish a central platform of CRA performance statistics. The Government also strongly agree that international consistency on CRA regulation is important. We shall continue to use the

15 Nov 2011 : Column 677

Financial Stability Board to stress this because it is not only Europe but IOSCO and others that are coming forward with proposals, so the FSB will be important.

I want to take this opportunity to respond to some of the key conclusions of the report. We agree with the committee's assessment that CRAs cannot be held responsible for precipitating or exacerbating the euro area crisis. Sovereign downgrades in Europe have reflected fundamental internal and external imbalances and CRA reform should not distract us from the key task of addressing those imbalances. The noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, challenges me with the rather bigger question of what action needs to be taken to stabilise the eurozone. I wish that we had time for that subject tonight, but there will be other opportunities. A lot of critical action is needed. CRA reform is important but it should not distract us from the other actions that he talks about which are for another debate.

We also agree that the proposal to suspend ratings for countries receiving international aid would only reduce information in the financial markets, possibly leading to further contagion. The key to reducing the destabilising effects of rating changes is timely and effective communication by the CRAs, not suspension. The Government agree that CRAs should always seek to learn from their past performance and endeavour to provide markets with timely and accurate ratings. However, the build-up of imbalances in the euro area was not reflected in the data in the run-up to the sovereign crisis, so it is crucial that the quality of national statistics in Europe is improved to underpin the assessment by CRAs and all others.

The committee also suggests that there should be a competition inquiry into the industry-a point that was touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, and others this evening. The competent authority to survey competition in the industry is the European Commission. It should keep the industry under review. The concentrated nature of the industry has been referred to a number of times, but it is for the Commission to decide whether there is evidence of the abuse of a dominant market position on which to base a competition inquiry. Such an inquiry should have regard to the impact of recent and forthcoming reforms in the CRA industry.

As we know, the debate has been particularly timely because the European Commission today released its proposals for this further package on CRA reform, which I believe will be voted on under qualified majority voting. I have to say at this point that I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard,

15 Nov 2011 : Column 678

that it is not necessary or appropriate for the noble Lord, Lord Myners, to lampoon Commissioner Barnier. I hope that this debate is read in Brussels for a lot of the serious comment that is highly relevant to the Commission's ongoing deliberations; but frankly the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Myners, do the UK absolutely no favours by lowering the tone of the debate in a rather demeaning manner. He sits there and laughs, but it exemplifies why the previous Government made so little progress in many European negotiations. He takes a flippant and dismissive attitude to the Commission, and it really is not necessary.

Our initial response to the Commission's proposals is very much in line with the committee's conclusions. We welcome the proposals to reduce the overreliance on CRA ratings and to improve the transparency of ratings, the methodology and the structured finance products. Such transparency will help foster competition. It is worth noting that already 31 CRAs have applied for registration in Europe, so there is evidence of developing competition-a point raised by my noble friend Lord Vallance of Tummel, as well as my noble friend Lady Noakes.

We oppose measures to interfere directly with industry structure or with ratings methodology. We strongly oppose efforts to harmonise and increase the scope of CRA liability, for which we already have an appropriate regime in the United Kingdom.

Clearly, many parties raised concerns about some of the proposals that were suggested earlier-particularly the ban on sovereign ratings and the thought of a publicly funded EU rating agency. We share those concerns and are glad that the Commission has agreed that they merit further reflection. I am not able to say whether it is a sine die, kick-into-the-long-grass situation; we will have to look at the detail and see what happens. However, it is a good first step to see the proposals taken off the table for the moment. Of course, we do not want to see a special regime for regulating sovereign markets, which would reduce their impartiality and comparability and hence their value in international markets.

The Government are committed to reforms that will ensure that credit ratings are credible and transparent, and will continue to serve as a useful indicator to international financial markets. The Government will continue their close engagement with European and international partners to achieve these objectives. We look forward to examining today's Commission proposals in detail and to keeping the House fully abreast of the Government's developing response.

House adjourned at 9.40 pm.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page