Meet your new bosses. Financial bosses that is.
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There's Deven Sharma, the president of Standard & Poor's, and Michael Rowan, a global managing director of Moody's Investors Service.
Both testified today in front of the House Committee on Financial Services. Two men, two companies, all with the power to make your financial life a living nightmare.
That's because folks like Sharma and Rowan influence professional investors all over the world. Their views are more than just suggestions -- they carry huge weight with the people in this world who invest serious money.
If Sharma or Rowan or their analysts decide that our nation isn't likely to pay back its debts, well, then those professional investors -- in Shangahi or Paris or even New York City -- may decide to invest their money in something other than U.S. Treasuries.
That's where the trouble starts. A downgrade on our nation's debt from any one of these agencies could set in motion a spike in interest rates, a stock market selloff -- even a recession. It happened just recently in Europe. Greece and Ireland were downgraded, professional investors dumped their debt and interest rates shot up as those countries were forced into a bailout. The two countries are still suffering the consequences.
Pretty powerful stuff. Yet today in testimony before the House, the two executives downplayed their significance. They were downright modest.
"S&P's ratings are not statements of fact," said Sharma, "but rather expressions of opinion about the likelihood that certain events will or will not happen in the future."
Truth is, they are hugely powerful. Robert Reich, a liberal economist, says this: "If you think deficit-reduction is being driven by John Boehner or Harry Reid, think again. The biggest driver right now is Standard & Poor's."
Imaginea little New York company with just $1.7 billion in annual sales determining the future of our $14 trillion economy. Our new economic bosses.
All of which might be okay if rating agencies got things right. Unfortunately, they missed one big call pretty dramaticallythe mortgage meltdown. Rating agencies backed mortgage investments that turned out to be trash.
It was probably their biggest mistake. Ever.
Congressman Spencer Bachus, who chaired the committee hearing today, had this to say: "The credit rating agencies failed spectacularly in the years leading up to the financial crisis. A government seal of approval for credit rating agencies led to a mispricing of risk and the subsequent collapse in market confidence."
Now your house is worth 30%, maybe 40%, or even 50% less than before the debacle. Loans are tough to get and the economy continues to sputter.
At the start of all that -- one watchdog that wasn't watching. The rating agencies. In testimony today, James Kroll, a fella who started his own rating agency in the wake of the meltdown described the industry as an "oligarchy." True enough.
A small group of people with too much power is a recipe for disaster. Now that industry could decide to fix its reputation by making the toughest call -- a downgrade of U.S. debt. In the end, it's you and I who are going to pay.