Standard & Poors' defense sounds familiar

What a shame that the feds’ big lawsuit against Standard and Poors probably won’t go to trial.

The public is missing the chance to view up close many of the players whose fraud and fecklessness helped fuel the financial collapse, wriggling and squirming under scrutiny by sharp lawyers in dramatic confrontation, with prosecutors who want to prove they can take on Wall Street and its high-priced lawyers, while Standard and Poor’s fights to save its business.

The stakes are too high for the government or the credit rating agency to take their chances turning the case over to a “jury of their peers.”

Before the Justice Department filed its case, Standard and Poors had already rejected a settlement offer that required it to pay $1 billion and admit responsibility. The case will eventually settle without that grand showdown in court, so the authorities can hold their face-saving press conference and the company will survive, stripped of a painful share of its profits but with enough semblance of its professional standing to go forward.

That means most of the jousting will take place in the court of public opinion, where both sides have shown considerable prowess.

For its part, the Obama administration has convinced a sizable chunk of the electorate that its efforts actually have reformed the financial system that led to the 2008 meltdown. Standard and Poors, meanwhile, has managed to prevent meaningful reform of the questionable practices that helped create that meltdown, despite damning official reports from the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission and the Permanent Senate Subcommittee on Investigations that laid a large chunk of the blame for the collapse squarely on the failures of the credit rating agencies.

As part of its defense, Standard and Poors has suggested that it wasn’t inflating its ratings of investments based on worthless mortgages just because that’s what the big banks were paying it do.

No, the credit rating agency insists it was taken in, along with all the other highly paid geniuses who were profiting or pumping up the housing bubble.

If the case went to trial, Standard and Poor’s could conceivably call all the top Obama administration officials who likewise have said, over the years, that the financial collapse was an unforeseeable event that came from nowhere.

They could call on Treasury Secretary Geithner and Larry Summers, Obama’s chief economic adviser until November 2010, both of whom embraced this feeble notion.

It wouldn’t be difficult for prosecutors to undermine this defense, since there are plenty of experts who were predicting the collapse of the bubble, though none of them were in the D.C.-Wall Street power axis. They were ignored before the collapse, as they are being ignored now.

If the Standard & Poor’s case did make it to trial, prosecutors would perform a real service by demolishing this phony propaganda in order to win their case.