US sues Standard & Poor's for $5 bn over pre-crisis mortgage ratings

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If S&P is found to have committed civil violations, it could face fines and limits on how it does business. (Reuters) If S&P is found to have committed civil violations, it could face fines and limits on how it does business. (Reuters)
SummaryOne of biggest cases yet related to financial crisis fallout.

have filed or will file separate, similar civil fraud lawsuits against S&P. Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen said that by the end of Tuesday, 16 states and D.C. will have sued S&P.

According to the lawsuit, S&P didn't issue a mass downgrade of subprime-backed securities until mid-2007, even though it knew in 2006 that many borrowers were struggling or failing to make payments.

The mortgages were faring so poorly "that analysts initially thought the data contained typographical errors,'' according to the lawsuit.

In a 2007 email, another analyst said some at S&P wanted to downgrade mortgage investments earlier, "before this thing started blowing up. But the leadership was concerned of p(asterisk)ssing off too many clients and jumping the gun ahead of Fitch and Moody's.''

The complaint includes a trove of embarrassing emails and other evidence that S&P analysts recognized the market's problems early.

In 2007, for example, an analyst who was reviewing mortgage bundles forwarded a video of himself singing and dancing to a song written to the tune of "Burning Down the House'': "Going _ all the way down, with/Subprime mortgages.'' The video showed colleagues laughing at his performance.

Critics have long argued that the rating agencies operate with a conflict of interest: They're paid by the banks that create the investments they're rating. If one agency appeared too strict, banks could shop around for a better rating.

S&P typically charged up to $150,000 for rating a subprime mortgage-backed security and up to $750,000 for certain other securities, the lawsuit says. If S&P lost the business to Fitch or Moody's, its main rivals, the analyst who issued the rating would have to submit a "lost deal'' memo explaining why he or she lost the business.

An analyst complained in 2004 that S&P had lost a deal because its standards for a rating were stricter than Moody's. "We need to address this now in preparation for the future deals,'' the analyst wrote.

The documents "make clear that the company regularly would `tweak,' `bend,' delay updating or otherwise adjust its ratings models to suit the company's business needs,'' said acting Associate Attorney General Tony West.

S&P countered that the emails

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