Ratings agencies clean up act

After widespread criticism for their failures, ratings agencies are bracing for a crackdown. But market leader, Standard & Poor's, says they've changed their ways and now "couldn’t be more transparent".

"How could the credit-rating agencies be so wrong consistently? Wrong on Asia, wrong on Enron, wrong on subprime…"

Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney sums up why the U.S. and Brussels plan to smash the system in which companies pay agencies for ratings. Brussels has already forced raters to regularly rotate analysts, so they don't get too friendly with the firms they rank.

But S&P Vice President, Peter Hughes, says since the crisis hit they've adjusted their crystal balls, and now provide superior service.

“I dont know how we could be any more transparent. The subprime world – we had problems with the underlying models, which is why we went about changing the ratings. We have a very large teams of analysts, which are based all around the world, and it's very hard for other organisations to replicate that depth of analysis.”

Many states only recognize ratings from Moody's or S&P. Rival Richard Hainsworth, CEO of Russian focused rating agency, Rusrating, says monopolies are unhealthy.

“It's not a magic box, it's not some fantastically difficult thing that only two companies in the world are able to do. It is a standard process of looking at financials, looking at the risk factors, and balancing the two. Open markets create an environment in which criticism is listened to and has meaning."

Signs of horseplay go from Lehman Brothers' 'A' rating a month before it fell, to the S&P analyst's e-mail to a colleague in 2006: "I hope we're all retired and wealthy before this house of cards falters."