Articles Posted in Fitch Inc.

Liquidators are suing Moody’s Investors Service (MCO), Standard & Poor’s, and Fitch Ratings over their issuing of allegedly fraudulent and inflated ratings for the securities belonging to two offshore Bear Stearns (BSC) hedge funds. The plaintiffs are seeking $1.12 billion.

The credit raters are accused of misrepresenting their autonomy, the timeliness of their residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) ratings, and the quality of their models. Because of the purportedly tainted ratings for securities that were supposedly “high-grade,” the funds lost $1.12B.

The funds, which were operated by Matthew Tannin and Ralph Cioffi, failed in 2007. The US government later pursued the two men for securities fraud, but they were acquitted. They did, however, settle an SEC securities case over related allegations last year.

Evergreen Investment Management Co. LLC and related entities have consented to pay $25 million to settle a class action securities settlement involving plaintiff investors who contend that the Evergreen Ultra Short Opportunities Fund was improperly marketed and sold to them. The plaintiffs, which include five institutional investors, claim that between 2005 and 2008 the defendants presented the fund as “stable” and providing income in line with “preservation of capital and low principal fluctuation” when actually it was invested in highly risky, volatile, and speculative securities, including mortgage-backed securities. Evergreen is Wachovia’s investment management business and part of Wells Fargo (WFC).

The plaintiffs claim that even after the MBS market started to fail, the Ultra Short Fund continued to invest in these securities, while hiding the portfolio’s decreasing value by artificially inflating the individual securities’ asset value in its portfolio. They say that they sustained significant losses when Evergreen liquidated the Ultra Short Fund four years ago after the defendants’ alleged scam collapsed. By settling, however, no one is agreeing to or denying any wrongdoing.

Meantime, seeking to generally move investors’ claims forward faster, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority has launched a pilot arbitration program that will specifically deal with securities cases of $10 million and greater. The program was created because of the growing number of very big cases.

According to California Superior Court Judge Richard Kramer Fitch Inc., Standard and Poor’s parent (MHP) McGraw-Hill Companies Inc., Fitch, Inc., and Moody’s Corp. (MCO), were merely exercising their First Amendment right to free speech when they gave their highest rating to three structured investment vehicles (SIVs) that collapsed when the mortgage market failed in 2008 and 2007. The ruling, in California Public Employees’ Retirement System v. Moody’s Corp. now leaves the plaintiffs with a steep burden of proof. The plaintiff, the largest pension fund in the US, is seeking more than $1 billion in securities fraud damages stemming from the inaccurate subprime ratings.

Per the securities complaint, CAlPERS is accusing the defendants of publishing ratings that were “unreasonably high” and “wildly inaccurate” and applying “seriously flawed” methods in an “incompetent” manner. The plaintiff contends that the high ratings that were given to the SIVs contributed to their collapse during the economic crisis.

BNA was able to get court transcripts that indicate that the ruling came on a motion under California’s anti- Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) statute, which offers a special procedure to strike a complaint involving the rights of free speech and petition. If a defendant persuades the court that the cause of action came from a protected activity, the plaintiff must prove that the claims deserve additional consideration. Now CalPERS must show a “probability of prevailing.”

Under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, there is no longer any protection from private litigation for ratings agency misstatements. Now, an investor only has to prove gross negligence to win the case. However, per Wayne State University Law School Peter Henning, in BNA Securities Daily, Dodd-Frank’s provision may not carry much weight if a ratings agency’s First Amendment rights are widely interpreted.

Shepherd Smith Edwards & Kantas LTD LLP Founder and Stockbroker fraud lawyer William Shepherd had this to say: “There have long been many restrictions on ‘speech,’ including life threats, trademarks, defamation, conspiracy, treason and threats of blackmail. But the age-old standard restriction is ‘you can’t shout fire in a crowded theater.’ The reason is that strangers might rely on the words and be injured by your ‘speech.’ How is this different than shouting ‘AAA- rated,’ knowing that strangers will rely on the words and be harmed by this ‘speech?’ The difference is that Wall Street can say anything it wants, while the rest of us have to just sit down and shut up.”

CalPERS has until March 18, 2011 to respond to the court.

Related Web Resources:
Ratings by Moody’s, Fitch, S&P Ruled to Be Protected Speech, BusinessWeek, December 11, 2010

Calpers Sues Rating Companies Over $1 Billion Loss, Bloomberg, July 15, 2010

CalPERS

California Public Employees’ Retirement System v. Moody’s Corp., Justia Dockets

Calif. Court Concludes Credit Ratings Entitled to First Amendment Protection, BNA Securities Law Daily, December 10, 2010

Credit Ratings Agencies, Stockbroker Fraud Blog

California Anti-SLAPP Project

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A superior court judge has turned down Standard & Poor’s motion to dismiss Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal’s lawsuit against it. Blumenthal, who filed companion complaints against Moody’s Corp, and Fitch Inc., is accusing the credit rating agency of issuing artificially low ratings to municipalities. He claims that this ended up costing taxpayers millions of dollars in unnecessary bond insurance and high interest rates.

S & P’s parent company McGraw-Hills Cos. had moved to dismiss for improper venue by claiming that a mandatory exclusive forum provision in the S&P Terms and Conditions barred the case from being filed in Connecticut. McGraw-Hills argued that the internal laws of the State of New York are supposed to govern the agreement and that the courts there are to serve as the exclusive forums for any disputes stemming from the agreement.

Superior Court Judge Robert Shapiro, however, denied the motion to dismiss. He said that under the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act, the state has a number of sovereign powers and that one of them lets the commission of consumer protection request that the state’s attorney general enforce CUTPA in state superior court.

Blumenthal called Shapiro’s decision a victory, while saying that credit rating agencies will likely continue to avoid being held accountable for misconduct. Meantime, a spokesperson for S & P told BNA last month that the lawsuit against the credit ratings agency has no factual merit.

The ratings lawsuits against Moody’s, S & P, and Fitch will now go forward in state court.

Related Web Resources:
Ratings case against S&P to proceed, MarketWatch, August 21, 2010

Richard Blumenthal, CT AG, Sues Moody’s, S&P, Says They Knowingly Falsified Debt Ratings, Huffington Post, March 10, 2010

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