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updated: 6/22/2012 1:22 PM

Little effect from Moody's bank downgrades

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  • Associated Press/April 19, 2012Bank of America's corporate headquarters in Charlotte, N.C. Moody's Investors Service lowered the credit ratings on some of the world's biggest banks, including Bank of America, but it had little effect on opening stock prices Friday.

    Associated Press/April 19, 2012Bank of America's corporate headquarters in Charlotte, N.C. Moody's Investors Service lowered the credit ratings on some of the world's biggest banks, including Bank of America, but it had little effect on opening stock prices Friday.

Bloomberg News

Moody's Investors Service suffered a downgrade of its own as markets responded to the company's rating cuts of 15 of the world's largest banks by bidding up the value of their stocks and bonds.

Shares of 12 of the firms affected by Thursday's action rose as of 11:38 a.m. in New York, and the cost to protect Morgan Stanley debt against losses dropped to the lowest in more than seven weeks, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, after the bank was cut two levels rather than a threatened three grades. Credit-default swaps tied to Bank of America Corp., which was lowered to within two levels of junk along with Citigroup Inc., also improved. The Bloomberg Europe Banks and Financial Services Index added as much as 1.5 percent.

"The ratings agencies themselves are looking for a raison d'etre" as regulations in the U.S. and Europe try to reduce investors' dependence on the credit assessments, David Zervos, chief market strategist at Jefferies & Co., said in an interview on Bloomberg Television's "Market Makers." "They like to be noisy, and this is a way to be noisy. I don't think the effects are big in the end."

The prospect of downgrades had weighed on banks since Moody's said Feb. 15 it was reviewing 17 financial firms with capital-markets operations because of fragile confidence and tighter regulations that pinched revenue. Pressure mounted as Europe's sovereign-debt crisis intensified and cast doubt on the health of some of the continent's lenders.

Market 'Shrugging'

By the time the results came out four months later, investors such as Thornburg Investment Management Inc.'s George Strickland had concluded the worst-case scenario for downgrades was already reflected in securities prices.

"If anything, the market is reacting with relief," said Strickland, who helps oversee $14 billion of fixed-income assets as a managing director at Santa Fe, New Mexico-based Thornburg. Morgan Stanley bonds likely will rally, said Strickland, whose firm owns the firm's debt. "The market is shrugging it off."

The review concluded with none of the financial firms cut more than Moody's had forecast, removing a drag on bank stocks brought on by the uncertainty, David Konrad, a KBW Inc. analyst in New York, wrote today.

"We view the Moody's downgrade as another overhyped story of 2012," David Trone, analyst at JMP Securities LLC, wrote to his clients. "The corporate market thinks for itself and credit rating agencies are often lagging indicators."

Stocks React

Financial stocks in the Standard & Poor's 500 Index climbed 0.8 percent at 11:21 a.m. New York time, the biggest gain among 10 industries, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. JPMorgan Chase & Co. advanced as much as 2.8 percent and ranked among the two biggest gainers in the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

Credit-default swaps on New York-based Morgan Stanley declined 28 basis points to 353.3 basis points as of 10:21 a.m. in New York, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That's the lowest on an intraday basis since May 4. Swaps are used to protect investors against losses on company debt, and the price increases along with doubt about a firm's creditworthiness, so today's decline reflects an improving outlook.

Morgan Stanley's long-term senior unsecured debt rating was reduced two grades to Baa1, and nine other firms received two- level reductions, Moody's said yesterday in a statement. Credit Suisse Group AG's rating was lowered three levels to A2 and Zurich-based UBS AG, the other firm singled out for a potential three-level cut, dropped just two instead.

European Banks

HSBC Holdings Plc, Europe's largest bank, was lowered one grade instead of two, while Barclays Plc was reduced two steps. Edinburgh-based Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc was lowered one step, as was London-based Lloyds Banking Group Plc, Britain's biggest mortgage lender.

"All of the banks affected by today's actions have significant exposure to the volatility and risk of outsized losses inherent to capital-markets activities," Greg Bauer, Moody's global banking managing director, said in the statement.

The 43-company Bloomberg Europe Banks and Financial Services Index erased earlier losses and rose 0.1 percent to 73.01. Credit-default swaps on Barclays, BNP Paribas and Societe Generale all fell, according to prices compiled by Bloomberg.

Credit-default swaps on Goldman Sachs slid 16.9 basis points to 277.4 basis points, the lowest since May 8, and Citigroup decreased 13.4 basis points to 245.6, Bloomberg prices show. A basis point is 0.01 percentage point.

Stronger Now

"American banks are stronger today than they were three years ago," said Gerard Cassidy, an analyst with RBC Capital Markets, adding that market prices have long reflected concerns raised by Moody's. "Yes, their ratings are lower, but is Citi tomorrow going to have to pay an extra 50 basis points for commercial paper? I don't think so."

In March, a month after announcing its review, Moody's cut Sydney-based Macquarie Group Ltd. and Tokyo-based Nomura Holdings Inc. one level each. Nomura is rated lowest of the 17 firms at Baa3, one grade above junk.

The downgrades reflect risks that the market has recognized for years, investors said. The S&P 500 Financials Index dropped 61 percent over the last five years, while the Bloomberg European banks index is down 75 percent. Morgan Stanley's swap prices are more than double what they were a year ago, while Citigroup's have jumped about 70 percent.

Advance Warning

"Moody's is not going to detect some problem in advance and move a rating to warn the public," said Ken Fisher, chief executive officer and founder of Woodside, California-based Fisher Investments, which has about $44 billion under management. "Whether it's a stock or a bond, the free market already did that. Moody's goes along afterwards and effectively validates what the market's already done."

Large U.S. banks had ratings in the Baa range -- similar to BBB at Standard & Poor's -- in the 1980s and early 1990s, said David Hendler, an analyst at CreditSights Inc. in New York. That era followed Latin America's sovereign-debt defaults of the 1980s, which forced lenders to set aside funds to cover bad loans to countries there.

"It's almost like they've come full circle back to triple- B," Hendler said. "The industry has been through a triple-B phase before, and they will come back from it."

Collateral Impact

While bank stocks and bonds initially climbed yesterday, the downgrades may have longer-term effects on operations, forcing some firms to post more collateral to trading partners in derivatives deals.

Citigroup and Bank of America, as the lowest-graded companies after Nomura, may be at a disadvantage in businesses such as trading derivatives that aren't centrally cleared. That market provides about 15 percent of the industry's trading revenue, Kinner Lakhani, a Citigroup analyst, wrote in an April 30 note. Both firms lost market share among the top nine banks in fixed-income trading last year, according to Bloomberg Industries.

"For the banks that are in the BBB category, I'm sure that will have a negative impact on their ratings-sensitive businesses, like derivatives," Anil Lalchand, a credit analyst at DoubleLine Capital LP in Los Angeles, which manages $35 billion, said in a telephone interview.

While higher-rated banks such as JPMorgan and HSBC received credit for retail businesses that serve as "shock absorbers" from the volatility of capital-markets-related units, Bank of America and Citigroup's consumer divisions were "thinner or less reliable" cushions, Moody's said.

Future Downgrades

All the U.S. firms remained on negative outlook, which means their grades could be cut again, because government support may wane, Bob Young, managing director of North American banking for Moody's, said in an interview.

Morgan Stanley, owner of the world's biggest brokerage, avoided the largest potential downgrade because of possible support from Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc., according to Moody's. Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman also cited his firm's capital ratios in meetings with Moody's to convince the ratings company that a three-level cut wasn't deserved.

The rating cuts underscore how much less creditworthy Moody's views global banks compared with smaller rivals. Minneapolis-based U.S. Bancorp, the fifth-largest U.S. bank by deposits, is still rated Aa3, five levels higher than fourth- ranked Citigroup or Charlotte, North Carolina-based Bank of America, which is second behind JPMorgan, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Banks Respond

Citigroup said in a statement that the downgrade was "arbitrary and completely unwarranted," and called Moody's approach "backward-looking." Morgan Stanley said its ratings don't reflect the actions it has taken to cut risk. Credit Suisse said it was pleased to remain among the top-rated large banks, while Bank of America said it has strengthened its capital and risk management.

The reductions by Moody's are "a mea culpa from 2007 and 2008," said James Leonard, a credit analyst in Chicago at Morningstar Inc. "The banks have gotten so much better in the last few years in terms of capital, yet their ratings keep going down. What does that tell you? That the ratings were so wrong before."

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