The case against S.& P. focuses on about 40 collateralized debt obligations, or C.D.O.’s, an exotic type of security made up of bundles of mortgage bonds, which in turn were composed of individual home loans. The securities were created at the height of the housing boom. S.& P. was paid fees of about $13 million for rating them.
The Justice Department late Monday filed civil fraud charges against the nation’s largest credit-ratings agency, Standard & Poor’s, accusing the firm of inflating the ratings of mortgage investments and setting them up for a crash when the financial crisis struck.
The suit, filed in federal court in Los Angeles, is the first significant federal action against the ratings industry, which during the boom years reaped record profits as it bestowed gilt-edged ratings on complex bundles of home loans that quickly went sour. The high ratings made many investments appear safer than they actually were, and are now seen as having contributed to a crisis that brought the financial system and the broader economy to its knees.
More than a dozen state prosecutors are expected to join the federal suit, and the New York attorney general is preparing a separate action. The Securities and Exchange Commission has also been investigating possible wrongdoing at S.& P.
From September 2004 through October 2007, S.&P. “knowingly and with the intent to defraud, devised, participated in, and executed a scheme to defraud investors” in certain mortgage-related securities, according to the suit filed against the agency and its parent company, McGraw-Hill Companies. S.&P. also falsely represented that its ratings “were objective, independent, uninfluenced by any conflicts of interest,” the suit said.