On July 15, 2010, the Senate passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which was passed by the House of Representatives on June 30th. The President has indicated that he will sign the bill that has now passed both of the Houses.
The legislation covers a wide variety of topics in an effort to address the causes of the recent financial crisis. With regard to credit rating agencies, the legislation covers the following topics: increased accountability, internal controls to avoid conflicts of interest and to better ensure the accuracy of ratings, elimination of reliance on ratings by federal agencies, and public disclosure of the information on which ratings are based to allow investors and other users to evaluate accuracy and to compare the performance of different agencies.
As indicated below, many of the requirements to be imposed have been left by Congress to regulations to be prescribed by the SEC and many actions that had been proposed in Congress have been relegated to studies to be conducted over the next several years. Generally, the SEC is required to issue final regulations with regard to credit rating agencies within one year of the date the legislation is enacted.
Liability for Information Filed Section 15E of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (the ?34 Act) includes provisions relating to the registration of Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations ("NRSROs") with the SEC. In various parts of Section 15E, there had been references to information to be "furnished" to the Commission. NRSROs will now be required to "file" such information with the Commission, and will therefore be subject to liability under Section 18 of the ?34 Act in the event that any such filings contain false or misleading statements of material fact.
"Accuracy" The legislation also empowers the SEC to temporarily suspend or permanently revoke the registration of an NRSRO with respect to a particular class of securities if, among other things, the Commission finds that the NRSRO "has failed over a sustained period of time . . . to produce ratings that are accurate for that class or subclass of securities . . .."
"Expert" Liability Rule 436(g) under the Securities Act of 1933 (the ?33 Act), which provides that credit ratings assigned by an NRSRO are not considered part of a registration statement prepared or certified by a person within the meaning of Sections 7 and 11 of the ?33 Act, is nullified. Written consent of an NRSRO must thus be obtained by a registrant in order to include a credit rating in a registration statement, and NRSROs are therefore subject to liability under Section 11 of the ?33 Act for misstatements or omissions of material facts in connection with credit rating disclosure.
Section 15E has also been amended to require NRSROs to "establish, maintain and enforce an effective internal control structure governing the implementation of and adherence to policies, procedures, and methodologies for determining credit ratings".
Annual Report Requirement The SEC is required by the legislation to prescribe rules requiring NRSROs to submit to the SEC annual internal controls reports describing the responsibility of the NRSRO's management in establishing and maintaining internal controls, assessing the effectiveness of their internal control structures, and containing an attestation of the CEO.
Conflicts of Interest
Separation of Ratings from Sales and Marketing The SEC will also be required to issue rules to prevent sales and marketing considerations from influencing the production of ratings. The legislation mandates that exceptions to the rules be provided for small NRSROs where separation of sales and marketing is not practical.
Look-back Requirement NRSROs will be required to put in place procedures reasonably designed to ensure that, if any employee of an issuer, underwriter, or sponsor of a security or money market instrument subject to a credit rating had previously been employed by the NRSRO and participated in determining a credit rating of that entity during the one-year period before the rating action, the NRSRO will conduct reviews to determine whether conflicts of interest influenced the rating, and will revise the rating as appropriate. The SEC will be required to periodically review the look-back procedures and code of ethics policies of each NRSRO.
Employment Transitions NRSROs will be required to report to the SEC (and the SEC will be required to disclose to the public) when an individual who had been an employee of the NRSRO within the previous five years becomes employed by an obligor, issuer, underwriter, or sponsor of a security or money market instrument that was rated by the NRSRO during the twelve months before the employee transitioned to his or her new position, in cases where the employee was a senior officer of the NRSRO or participated in or supervised someone participating in rating the obligor, issuer, underwriter, or sponsor.
Rule to Prevent Conflicts of Interest The legislation sets forth the sense of Congress that the SEC should exercise its rulemaking authority to prevent improper conflicts of interest arising from NRSRO employees providing services to issuers, including consulting and advisory services, in addition to providing credit ratings to those issuers.
Independent Board Each NRSRO must have a board of directors, at least half but no fewer than two members of which areindependent. To be independent, a board member may not, other than in the capacity of member of the board, accept a fee from the NRSRO, be associated with the NRSRO or any affiliated company, or be involved in determining a rating in which it has a financial interest. Some of the independent members must be users of NRSRO ratings.
Duties of Board The NRSRO board of directors will be required to oversee the establishment, maintenance, and enforcement of policies and procedures for determining credit ratings and addressing and dealing with conflicts of interest, the effectiveness of the internal control system, and compensation and promotion policies.
If the SEC determines that compliance with these provisions is an unreasonable burden for a small NRSRO, the SEC may permit such NRSRO to delegate these responsibilities to a committee which includes at least one person who is a user of NRSRO ratings.
Regulation of NRSROs
Office of Credit Ratings The SEC will be required to establish an Office of Credit Ratings within the SEC to administer rules regarding the practice of determining ratings, promoting rating accuracy, and ensuring that ratings are not influenced by conflicts of interest.
Private Right of Action
Duty to Report Tips Alleging Material Violations of Law
Each NRSRO must report to the appropriate authority any credible information it receives alleging that an issuer of securities rated by the NRSRO has committed or is committing a material violation of law.
Disclosure of Credit Ratings
SEC Rule as to Disclosure The SEC must issue a rule requiring NRSROs to publicly disclose information on the initial credit rating given to each obligor, security, and money market instrument, and on any subsequent rating change.
Content and Type of Disclosure The disclosures made by each NRSRO must (i) be comparable so that users can compare credit ratings performance across NRSROs, (ii) be clear and informative, (iii) include performance information over a range of years and for a variety of types of credit ratings, including for withdrawn credit ratings, (iv) be freely available and easily accessible on its website, and (v) include an attestation that the rating is based solely on an independent evaluation of the risks and merits of the instruments being rated.
Form Accompanying Ratings The SEC will require each NRSRO to prescribe a form to accompany each publication of a credit rating which is easy to use, comparable across security type, and readily available to credit rating users.
Third Party Due Diligence The issuer or underwriter of any asset-backed security will be required to make publicly available the findings and conclusions of any third party due diligence report it obtains. Any third party due diligence provider employed by an NRSRO, issuer, or underwriter must provide written certification to the NRSRO that it conducted a thorough review of the data and documentation used by an NRSRO to make a rating determination in a form to be established by the SEC, and the NRSRO will be required to disclose the certification to the public.
Elimination of Regulation FD Exemption Under Regulation FD, if an issuer or any person acting on behalf of an issuer discloses material nonpublic information about the issuer or its securities to certain enumerated entities, the issuer must make such disclosure public. The current rule exempts disclosures made to credit rating agencies. The SEC is required to revise Regulation FD within 90 days of enactment of the legislation to remove the exemption for disclosures to credit rating agencies.
Methodologies and Procedures
SEC Rules as to Procedures and Methodologies The SEC must prescribe rules requiring NRSROs to:
Use of Information from Outside Sources NRSROs must consider information about an issuer that it receives from a source other than the issuer or underwriter when producing a rating, if the NRSRO finds the information credible and potentially significant to the rating decision.
Qualifications for Credit Rating Analysts The SEC will be required to issue rules designed to ensure that persons employed by an NRSRO to perform credit ratings meet standards of training, experience, and competence necessary to produce accurate ratings and are tested for knowledge of the credit rating process.
Universal Rating Symbols The SEC must require NRSROs to establish, maintain, and enforce written policies and procedures that (i) assess the likelihood that an issuer of a security or money market instrument will default or fail to make payments in a timely manner in accordance with the terms of the instrument, (ii) clearly define the symbol used to denote the credit rating, and (iii) apply credit rating symbols in a consistent manner.
Removal of Statutory References to Credit Ratings
Removal of Statutory References Certain statutory references to credit ratings are required to be removed, effective two years after the date of enactment. Regulatory bodies will be required to develop their own standards of credit-worthiness to replace these references.
Feasibility Study The SEC will be required to undertake a study on the feasibility and desirability of standardizing credit rating terminology and meanings. The SEC must submit a report of its findings and recommendations to Congress within one year after enactment.
Review and Modification of Federal Agency Reliance on Ratings
Each federal agency is required to review and modify its regulations to remove references to credit ratings and substitute its own standard of credit-worthiness. Upon conclusion of the process, each federal agency must submit a report to Congress describing the modifications made.
NRSRO Independence The SEC must conduct a study of the independence of NRSROs and of how such independence affects the ratings issued. The SEC must evaluate management of conflicts of interest raised by an NRSRO providing services in addition to awarding ratings, and the potential impact of rules prohibiting an NRSRO from providing such other services to issuers it rates. A report on the results must be submitted to Congress within three years of enactment.
Alternative Business Models The GAO must conduct a study on alternative means for compensating NRSROs in order to create incentives for NRSROs to provide more accurate credit ratings. A report on the results must be submitted to Congress within 18 months of enactment.
Creation of Independent Professional Analyst Organization The GAO must conduct a study on the feasibility and merits of creating an independent professional organization for rating analysts employed by NRSROs that would be responsible for establishing independent standards for governing the profession and a code of ethical conduct, and for overseeing the profession. A report on the results must be submitted to Congress within one year of enactment.
Assigned Credit Ratings Study and Rulemaking
Section 15E(w) of the ?34 Act, as that provision would have been added by section 939D of H.R. 4173 (111th Congress), as passed by the Senate on May 20, 2010, would have established a system pursuant to which a self-regulated Credit Rating Agency Board would assign NRSROs to determine initial credit ratings of structured finance products. The SEC will be required to implement the system described in Section 15E(w) unless the SEC determines that an alternative system would better serve the public interest and the protection of investors.