S&P blasts US lawsuit as ‘retaliation’ for downgrade

US government is suing rating agency for 2011 downgrade


Standard & Poor’s blasted a $5 billion fraud lawsuit by the US government as retaliation for its 2011 decision to strip the country of its AAA credit rating.

The McGraw Hill Financial unit was the only major credit rating agency to take away the United States’ top rating, and the only one sued by the US department of justice for allegedly misleading banks and credit unions about the credibility of its ratings prior to the 2008 financial crisis.

In a filing with the US district court in Santa Ana, California, S&P said the lawsuit attempts to punish it for exercising its First Amendment free speech rights under the US constitution, but also seeks “excessive fines” in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

It said the government’s “impermissibly selective, punitive and meritless” lawsuit was brought “in retaliation for defendants’ exercise of their free speech rights with respect to the creditworthiness of the United States of America.”

S&P seeks to dismiss the lawsuit with prejudice, meaning it cannot be brought again.

The August 2011 downgrade of the US credit rating to AA-plus from AAA reflected concern about Washington’s ability to address the nation’s swelling debt. A justice department spokesman declined immediate comment.

The lawsuit accused S&P of inflating ratings to win more fees from issuers, and failing to downgrade ratings for collateralised debt obligations despite knowing they were backed by deteriorating residential mortgage-backed securities.

US district judge David Carter in July allowed the case to go forward. In Tuesday’ s filing, S&P estimated that more than $4.6 billion of the alleged losses may have resulted from CDOs that were structured, marketed or sold by Bank of America Corp or Citigroup. It also said more than $1 billion came from debt that was never issued in the first place.

S&P also said the government lacked authority to sue under the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act of 1989, because no federally insured financial institutions were affected by violations.