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Market dynamics associated with credit ratings: a literature review

Author

Listed:
  • Gonzalez, F.
  • Haas, F.
  • Johannes, R.
  • Persson, M.
  • Toledo, L.
  • Violi, R.
  • Zins, C.
  • Wieland, M.

Abstract

Credit ratings produced by the major credit rating agencies (CRAs) aim to measure the creditworthiness, or more specifically the relative creditworthiness of companies, i.e. their ability to meet their debt servicing obligations. In principle, the rating process focuses on the fundamental long-term credit strength of a company. It is typically based on both public and private information, except for unsolicited ratings, which focus only on public information. The basic rationale for using ratings is to achieve information economies of scale and solve principal-agent problems. Partly for the same reasons, the role of credit ratings has expanded significantly over time. Regulators, banks and bondholders, pension fund trustees and other fiduciary agents have increasingly used ratings-based criteria to constrain behaviour. As a result, the influence of the opinions of CRAs on markets appears to have grown considerably in recent years. One aspect of this development is its potential impact on market dynamics (i.e. the timing and path of asset price adjustments, credit spreads, etc.), either directly, as a consequence of the information content of ratings themselves, or indirectly, as a consequence of the “hardwiring” of ratings into regulatory rules, fund management mandates, bond covenants, etc. When considering the impact of ratings and rating changes, two conclusions are worth highlighting. – First, ratings correlate moderately well with observed credit spreads, and rating changes with changes in spreads. However, other factors, such as liquidity, taxation and historical volatility clearly also enter into the determination of spreads. Recent research suggests that reactions to rating changes may also extend beyond the immediately-affected company to its peers, and from bond to equity prices. Furthermore, this price reaction to rating changes seems to be asymmetrical, i.e. more pronounced for downgrades than for upgrades, and may be more significant for equity prices than for bond prices. – Second, the hardwiring of regulatory and market rules, bond covenants, investment guidelines, etc., to ratings may influence market dynamics, and potentially lead to or magnify threshold effects. The more that different market participants adopt identical ratings-linked rules, or are subject to similar ratings-linked regulations, the more “spiky” the reaction to a credit event is likely to be. This reaction may include, in some cases, the emergence of severe liquidity pressures. Efforts have recently been made, notably with support from the rating agencies themselves, to encourage a more systematic disclosure of rating triggers and to renegotiate and smooth the possibly more destabilising forms of rating triggers. However, the lack of a clear disclosure regime makes it difficult to assess how far this process has evolved. Questions also remain as to the extent to which ratings-based criteria introduce a fundamentally new element into market behaviour, or, conversely, the extent to which they are simply a va riant of more traditional contractual covenants. Rating agencies strive to provide credit assessments that remain broadly stable through the course of the business cycle (rating “through the cycle”). Agencies and other analysts frequently contrast the fundamental credit analysis on which ratings are based with market sentiment — measured for example by bond spreads — which is arguably subject to more short-term influences. Agencies are adamant that they do not directly incorporate market sentiment into ratings (although they may use market prices as a diagnostic tool). On the contrary, they make every effort to exclude transient market sentiment. However, as reliance on ratings grows, CRAs are being increasingly expected to satisfy a widening range of constituencies, with different, and even sometimes conflicting, interests: issuers and “traditional” asset managers will look for more than a simple statement of near-term probability of loss, and will stress the need for ratings to exhibit some degree of stability over time. On the other hand, mark-to-market traders, active investors and risk managers may seek more frequent indications of credit changes. Hence, in the wake of major bankruptcies with heightened credit stress, rating agencies have been under considerable pressure to provide higher-frequency readings of credit status, without loss of quality. So far, they have responded to this challenge largely by adding more products to their traditional range, but also through modifications in the rating process. The rating process and the range of products offered by rating agencies have thus evolved over time, with, for instance, an increasing emphasis on the analysis of liquidity risks, a new focus on the hidden liabilities of companies and an increased use of market-based tools. It is too early, however, to judge whether these changes should simply be regarded as a refinement of the agencies’ traditional methodology or whether they suggest a more fundamental shift in the approach to credit risk measurement. For the same reason, it is not possible to draw any firm conclusions about changes in the effects of credit ratings on market dynamics.

Suggested Citation

  • Gonzalez, F. & Haas, F. & Johannes, R. & Persson, M. & Toledo, L. & Violi, R. & Zins, C. & Wieland, M., 2004. "Market dynamics associated with credit ratings: a literature review," Financial Stability Review, Banque de France, issue 4, pages 53-76, June.
  • Handle: RePEc:bfr:fisrev:2004:4:1
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