May 30 (Bloomberg) -- Moody's Investors Service has created a new unit that surprises even its own director.
The team from Moody's Analytics, which operates separately from Moody's ratings division, uses credit-default swap prices as an alternative system of grading debt. These so-called implied ratings often differ significantly from Moody's official grades.
The implied ratings frequently show that swap traders think debt is in more danger of defaulting than Moody's credit ratings signify. And here's the kicker: The swaps traders are usually right.
``When I first saw this product, my reaction was, `Goodness gracious, Moody's has got a product that is basically publicizing where the market disagrees with Moody's,''' says David Munves, managing director for credit strategy research at Moody's Analytics. The implied-ratings unit works in a corner of Moody's new world headquarters in lower Manhattan, across the street from Ground Zero.
``But these differences are out there,'' Munves says. ``We might as well capture and learn from it what we can.''
The credit quality of bond insurers, which have been at the center of the subprime storm, differs dramatically. The official ratings of these companies say the insurers are in great shape; the alternative ratings say they're in dire danger of defaulting on their debts.
MBIA Inc. and Ambac Assurance Insurance Inc., the two largest bond insurers, got themselves into trouble by veering away from the plain-vanilla business of insuring debt issued by municipalities and corporations. The insurers began selling credit-default swaps, which are a type of insurance, to banks eager to hedge their own risks from collateralized debt obligations.
Because many of those CDOs were bundles of debt laced with securitized subprime home loans and other asset-backed securities, the insurers might now shoulder tens of billions of dollars in losses.
Ambac and MBIA have raised billions of dollars of new capital so that Moody's and Standard & Poor's would keep top ratings for the bond insurers -- and the rating firms have done just that.
Moody's implied-ratings group paints a completely different picture. Using CDS market prices, Munves's unit assigns implied ratings of Caa1 to both MBIA and Ambac. That's seven notches below junk and 15 below the official Moody's rating.
Swap traders see there's a huge risk that Ambac and MBIA will default, hedge fund adviser Tim Backshall says. He says swap traders don't trust S&P's and Moody's investment-grade ratings for the companies.
``The only thing holding them at AAA is simply the model that the rating agencies claim they use to judge that capital and the fact they know that if they downgrade the companies, it'll push them into default,'' says Backshall, of Walnut Creek, California- based Credit Derivatives Research LLC.
MBIA spokesman Kevin Brown says the official investment grade ratings are justified. ``Credit default swap spreads, in our opinion, are an indicator of investors' sentiment, as opposed to an objective measure of risk,'' he says.
Brown disagrees with Backshall's conclusion. ``There is nothing about a downgrade that would in and of itself trigger a default. We don't think that's going to happen.''
Ambac Chief Financial Officer Sean Leonard says the credit default swap market may not accurately portray a company's debt quality.
``It's not an efficient market,'' he says. ``There are technical factors, like supply and demand imbalances, in the credit default swap price that don't reflect our fundamental ability to make payments on claims.''
`Will Not Refrain'
The rating companies say their grades are correct.
``Moody's will not refrain from taking a credit rating action based on the potential effect of the action,'' says company spokesman Anthony Mirenda.
S&P spokesman Chris Atkins says, ``We make rating changes when we believe events warrant such action.''
Munves says that over one year, the implied ratings have been a more accurate predictor of defaults than Moody's ratings. The Moody's unit reports that implied ratings for one year have a 91 percent accuracy ratio compared with an 82 percent ratio for Moody's official ratings.
``The Moody's accuracy ratio is consistently lower,'' he says.
He says Moody's company debt ratings are designed to remain stable so they aren't influenced by short-term ripples, unlike the more volatile swap-implied ratings.
``The CDS market often ends up coming back towards Moody's rating,'' he says.
By the time the two ratings converge, though, a company's debt may already be in default -- and the investors who bought it may be out of luck.
Editor: Jonathan Neumann