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Can anything cut the power of the rating agencies?

If there was one set of intermediaries the vast majority of the financial markets would like to see the back of, it’s the ratings agencies. But they’re so enshrined in the fabric of the markets, even their biggest critics struggle to conceive a way of doing so.

In a 1996 interview on PBS’s News Hour, the New York Times Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Thomas Friedman said: "There are two superpowers in the world today in my opinion. There’s the United States, and there’s Moody’s Bond Rating Service [sic]. The United States can destroy you by dropping bombs, and Moody’s can destroy you by downgrading your bonds. And believe me, it’s not clear sometimes who’s more powerful."

The main credit rating agencies, among which Fitch Ratings, Moody’s Investors Service and Standard & Poor’s are dominant, have long defended their judgement calls on the creditworthiness of the world’s governments, financial institutions and companies as mere opinion, and seemingly nothing more.

Indeed, it could be argued that these agencies played a crucial role in the financial crisis of 2007/08 – not through downgrades, but through rating products across the financial spectrum at levels much higher than their real creditworthiness.

Those failings have brought into sharp focus the evolution of the agencies, from private companies providing considered opinions on creditworthiness, to private companies that, in effect, perform an outsourced regulatory function where their judgement calls have been seen to have systemic consequences.

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