In 1909, John Moody became the first financial analyst to assign letter grades to railroad bonds, giving investors an easier way to evaluate the rail companies' debt. It was the beginning of one of the most powerful forces in modern capitalism. Today a small club of bond-rating agencies, led by Moody's, Standard & Poor's and Fitch, wields enormous power, sending investors scrambling simply by changing the ratings that the firms assign to everything from Ireland's sovereign debt to General Electric's IOUs. They are pilloried for having wildly overestimated the quality of mortgage-related securities.
Poor's Publishing (later Standard & Poor's) started selling its bond ratings to investors in 1916; Fitch followed suit in 1924. In the 1930s, federal regulators began using these private ratings to evaluate the safety of banks' holdings, among other things, but the importance of the agencies waned following World War II as bond defaults became rare. The economic turbulence of the 1970s raised the industry's profile again. In 1975, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) deemed certain firms "nationally recognized statistical ratings organizations"--making a sign-off from a ratings agency a necessity for anyone selling debt. But ratings also became a stamp of actuarial approval that often let investors and regulators skimp on their own due diligence.
Meanwhile, the agencies' business model morphed from one in which investors paid for ratings to one in which bond issuers did. That generated more revenue, but it also created a massive conflict of interest, often cited in the current mortgage mess. In 2006, the SEC took regulatory authority over the agencies, in part because of their failure to ring more alarm bells concerning companies like Enron. SEC head Mary Schapiro is now signaling that the ratings system might need to be changed further, particularly who pays for ratings.