Sunehri zulfon, nasheeli ankhon ki desh ko khokar;
Main hairaan hoon woh zikr waadi-e-kashmir ke karte hain. (After losing Bangladesh, I am troubled to learn they still go on about the Kashmir valley.) - Habib Jalib
Italian prosecutors have filed charges against Deven Sharma, the former president of Standard & Poor’s, and six other credit rating officials for issuing downgrades that destablised the country and fuelled the debt crisis.
Italian prosecutors claim downgrades from S&P and Fitch destablised Italy and exacerbated the eurozone debt crisisPhoto: AFP
Prosecutor Michele Ruggiero has asked a court in Trani, Italy to indict five S&P employees and two from Fitch Ratings for market manipulation, in a move that could trigger a raft of similar claims against rating setters around the world.
Mr Ruggiero, who has pursued the agencies since they placed Italy on negative watch last summer, accused them of “aggravated and continuous…market abuse”. He claimed they leaked “biased and distorted information” about Italy’s financial stability to traders.
In a statement, he said the rating agencies had tried to “destabilise Italy’s image, prestige and credit confidence on the financial markets, alter the value of Italian bonds by depreciating them [and] weaken the euro”.
As well as Mr Sharma, president of S&P from 2007 and 2011, the operational director for Fitch, David Riley, was also named in the legal filings.
Claims against Moody’s Investor Services were dropped. Fitch failed to return calls for comment.
In a statement, S&P said: “These claims are entirely baseless and without any merit as our role is to publish independent opinions about creditworthiness according to our public and transparent methodologies, which we apply consistently around the world.
The agency added: “We will continue to perform our role without fear or favour of any investor, debt issuer or other external party and to defend our actions, our reputation and that of our people”.
Italy’s sovereign debt, which stands at 120pc of GDP and is the second highest in the eurozone after Greece, has been a focus for traders and investors for months. After warning about its concerns in May 2011, S&P downgraded Italy’s sovereign debt in September 2011 by one notch to a single-A rating. Another downgrade followed in January of this year, by two notches to BBB-. Fitch followed in February by downgrading Italy from A+ to A-.
Mr Ruggiero’s case was triggered after two consumer rights groups claimed the downgrades had been leaked to traders before being announced and had triggered big losses on the stockmarket in Milan.
If the Trani judge gives the go-ahead, it could be a test-case for dozens of other efforts to sue the credit rating agencies. Despite widespread criticism for failing to realise the debt they were rating as AAA was highly toxic, the agencies have so far managed to protect themselves from prosecution by claiming that their ratings are only opinions. In America, they have claimed protection under free speech rules.
More than 60 cases against the agencies are thought to have been filed around the world following the financial crisis but none with much success.
A breakthrough came three weeks ago when an Australian court ruled that S&P misled 12 councils in Australia by awarded a AAA rating to derivatives products created by ABN Amro which imploded less than two years after they were sold.
In July, McGraw-Hill, the American owners of S&P, admitted in a filing that US regulators, including the Securities & Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice, are investigating S&P’s ratings of structured products.