Credit risk appraiser Moody’s buys a firm that assesses climate change risk

Even for those not very familiar with Moody’s, this headline speaks volumes about the impact of the risk of climate change on our country and planet. In a July 24, 2019 article in The New York Times by Christopher Flavelle called “Moody’s Buys Climate Data Firm, Signaling New Scrutiny of Climate Risks,” the company that measures credit risks for bond investors in companies, cities, counties, states and countries, has added to its expertise. Per Flavelle’s article

“Moody’s Corporation has purchased a controlling stake in a firm that measures the physical risks of climate change, the latest indication that global warming can threaten the creditworthiness of governments and companies around the world.

The rating agency bought a majority share in Four Twenty Seven, a California-based company that measures a range of hazards, including extreme rainfall, hurricanes, heat stress and sea level rise, and tracks their impact on 2,000 companies and 196 countries. In the US, the data covers 761 cities and more than 3,000 counties.

‘We are taking these risks very seriously,’ said Myriam Durand, global head of assessments at Moody’s Investor Service, who said the purchase would allow its credit analysts to be more precise in their review of climate-related risks. ‘You can’t mitigate what you don’t understand.’

Sudden shocks such as floods, wildfires, or storms can hurt businesses and send residents fleeing, taking away the tax revenue that government s use to pay debts. And, longer term threats – such as rising seas or higher temperatures – can make those places less desirable to live in, hurting property values and, in turn, the amount raised by taxes.”

To illustrate this risk, the same day I read a reprint of this article in The Charlotte Observer, the local paper ran a story on the town of Fair Bluff, NC which has been flooded twice in that past four years due to Hurricanes Matthew and Florence which lingered over their area. Sitting near the Lumber River, the citizens of Fair Bluff saw the river rise well beyond flood range. The previous flood of this magnitude occurred 90 years before. Sadly, the population and business is declining due to rebuilding costs. As a result, so is the tax revenue to provide services.

There is a huge financial impact of climate change on the lives and business of people and communities. Rebuilding a town that may continue to be in harms way adds to the risk and some people are choosing to relocate. And, It is not just small towns. Houston has had two major floods over the past five years, as well. Houston has felt on a larger scale what Fair Bluff has felt. Not only do the rains of the Hurricane sit over them, the rivers upstate overfill and flow toward the sea. This causes extra flooding.

So, Moody’s is improving their ability to assess repayment risk to bondholders. A city that has rebuilt or prepared poorly is at greater risk of flight of people, businesses and tax dollars. What should also be alarming to American citizens is while Moody’s is taking forward thinking action, the US government is stripping climate change reports from their websites and demoting, transferring or running off Ph.Ds who are expert in measuring and addressing climate change. In short, we are throwing away a technical advantage that could help the US and the world.

Repeating what Ms. Durand said above, “You can’t mitigate what you don’t understand.”  So, please ask all politicians what they plan to do about climate change including the US president. And, a question for those who still buy the hoax stuff, why is Moody’s spending all of that money on a hoax?

 

A big culprit in the housing crisis is punished

After living through the housing crisis and reading and watching news, books and movies, I read with interest that one of the biggest culprits has been punished – the rating agency Moody’s. In my view and the view of others, Moody’s failed in its job to forewarn investors of the true risks of packaged together mortgage loans. They fell into a “pay to play” modus operandi.

What is pay to play? Per an article in Reuters, “Moody’s ratings were ‘directly influenced by the demands of the powerful investment banking clients who issued the securities and paid Moody’s to rate them,’ Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen said in a statement on Friday.” This would be akin to you paying off the inspector of the house you just built and want to sell. The buyer would not know the inspector was gaming the system against him or her.

So, individual investors, pension funds, 401(k) funds, states, and countries all fell prey to this pay to play ratings approach. Iceland had to declare bankruptcy, e.g. As a result of their actions, Moody’s was fined $864 million which will be distributed to twenty-one states and the federal government, who were part of the lawsuit.

We should not lose sight of an industry who became enamored with riskier investments and did not ask enough questions. Executives did not fully understand the risk they were taking on and it brought them down, along with the housing market, stock market and economy. An excellent movie to watch is called “The Big Short,” based on Michael Lewis’ book, which takes a complex topic and explains it with the dialogue, but also with clever sidebars which use laymen’s terms to define what things mean.

In essence, mortgage loans were given out to anyone who could fog a mirror, then these lesser risks were packaged together to spread risk and sold to investors. The problem is packaging bad risks does not make the risk less, it makes it concentrated bad risk. The law of large numbers to mitigate risk is only effective if good risks are mixed with some bad risks. Moody’s stamped these packaged loan investments with much higher ratings than they deserved. And, investors who trusted Moody’s and the seller bought them in good faith.

We rely on Moody’s and other rating agencies to take their job with seriousness of purpose and ethics. If they cannot shoot straight with us, they will let us down. And, that is precisely what they did. In my view, that fine may not be enough for the damage they helped perpetuate.