Standard & Poor’s $1.5 billion settlement with the U.S. Justice Department, more than a dozen states and the biggest U.S. pension fund today will let the world’s biggest rating company move beyond a bruising legal battle, at a steep cost.
S&P, a unit of McGraw Hill Financial Inc., will pay more than a year’s profit to settle suits that it inflated ratings on subprime-mortgage bonds at the center of the 2008 financial crisis. S&P sealed the deal without admitting wrongdoing. Ending the costly legal battle will help the company close a profit gap with its biggest competitor, Moody’s Corp.
A $1.375 billion settlement to be split evenly with the Justice Department and 19 states and the District of Columbia caps a rancorous two-year court battle during which S&P accused the Justice Department of cracking down unfairly on the company after its 2011 decision to downgrade U.S. sovereign debt to AA+ from AAA.
S&P stepped back from that position in today’s settlement, acknowledging that it found no evidence to date that the U.S. had acted in retaliation, according to a statement of facts from the Justice Department. S&P was the only credit rater sued by the agency, even though its competitors also issued top ratings for similar subprime-backed securities.
S&P reached a separate $125 million settlement with the California Public Employees Retirement System, or Calpers, to resolve claims over three structured investment vehicles.
“The company’s leadership ignored senior analysts who warned that the company had given top ratings to financial products that were failing to perform as advertised,” said Attorney General Eric Holder in prepared remarks. “While this strategy may have helped S&P avoid disappointing its clients, it did major harm to the larger economy, contributing to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.”
S&P admitted in the statement that its ratings decisions were affected by business concerns, a fact it disputed two years ago when the lawsuit was filed. To win business, S&P awarded top grades on bonds built out of risky subprime mortgages that investors thought were as safe as debt from the U.S. government. When housing prices fell, the bonds defaulted, helping freeze credit markets and trigger the worse recession since the 1930s.
“The credit rating agencies portrayed themselves as if they were as pure as driven snow,” Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood said at a press conference in Washington. “You expected the banks to do some things slippery, but the credit rating agencies were supposed to be the ones we looked to.”
The company and regulators “settled this matter to avoid the delay, uncertainty, inconvenience, and expense of further litigation,” Catherine Mathis, an S&P spokeswoman, said in a release. The settlements will be reflected in the company’s 2014 full-year financial statements and fourth-quarter results that will be released on Feb. 12, the company said.
The settlement arguably delivers a greater financial sting to McGraw Hill than did last year’s deals with the banks that admitted they misled investors about the quality of securities assembled from subprime loans. S&P’s cash payout is equivalent to about a year and a half of profit for McGraw Hill.
By comparison, the majority of the Justice Department’s $16.7 billion settlement with Bank of America Corp. represented a pledge that the bank would write down or forgive mortgage- holder debt; the bank’s cash payout was $9.7 billion, or about 85 percent of its year-earlier profit. Also in 2014, Citigroup Inc.’s $7 billion settlement with the Justice Department required it to pay out $3.8 billion in cash — roughly the equivalent of its second-quarter profit that year.
Net income at McGraw Hill amounted to about $964 million last year, according to six analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg.
In late 2012, the Justice Department began settlement talks with S&P over the company’s ratings of the subprime mortgage- backed bonds. The discussions were derailed when S&P refused to admit wrongdoing, according to a person familiar with the talks.
In February 2013, the government sued S&P, alleging it awarded investment-grade ratings to those securities in a bid to win business and accused it of lying about its rankings being free from conflicts of interest.