World and Nation

European central bankers criticize role of rating agencies

LONDON — Two European central bank chiefs are urging investors to pay less attention to credit rating agencies and to consider other factors in assessing what the region’s debt is worth.

Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, and Mervyn A. King, the governor of the Bank of England, separately questioned the role of rating agencies after Standard & Poor’s cut its ratings Friday on nine European countries, including France and Italy.

One should “put less focus directly on what the ratings agencies say and more on what the market as a whole is saying in terms of sovereign debt,” King told a parliamentary committee in London on Tuesday. “What we need to do is to move to a point, and I think markets have gone some way towards that, where they pay less attention to the verdicts of the ratings agencies.”

Draghi told the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Monday that “we should learn to do without ratings, or at least we should learn to assess creditworthiness.”

He added, “Certainly one needs to ask how important are these ratings for the marketplace over all, for investors.”

Ratings agencies have attracted criticism from politicians for specific downgrades, but the comments from the two central bankers questioned the wider role of the agencies.

The three big rating agencies — S&P, Moody’s Investors Service and Fitch Ratings — have repeatedly lowered their ratings for the sovereign debt of European economies over the past year, saying some austerity measures were not far-reaching enough to deal with high debt levels. The downgrades have made it more difficult for governments to raise money cheaply and heightened concerns about the ability of some countries to finance their debts.

Martin Winn, a spokesman for Standard & Poor’s, said the agency was “focused on fulfilling our role to investors by providing an independent view of creditworthiness — one based on rigorous analysis and our transparent and consistently applied criteria. We would also point out that our sovereign ratings have an excellent track record as indicators of default risk.”

A Moody’s representative said, “The fundamental concern over the role of credit rating agencies stems from their use in regulation, and Moody’s has long supported removing the mechanical reliance on ratings in regulation.”

A spokesman for Fitch, Daniel Noonan, wrote by email that credit ratings “should be considered among numerous inputs when making investment decisions.” He added that Fitch “broadly supports efforts to reduce overreliance on ratings.”

In a sign that investors are already starting to pay less attention to rating agencies, Spain’s borrowing costs fell during an auction Tuesday even after Standard & Poor’s cut the country’s debt rating by two levels Friday. Greece also sold Treasury bills Tuesday with a yield that was lower than at an auction in December.