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Investors tapped as rating agencies

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Kai Ryssdal: Let’s take a detour deep into the mechanics of the credit crisis for a second. When you and I pay our insurance premiums, the insurance companies take that cash and invest it. Before we all had ever heard the word subprime, insurers were some of the biggest buyers of mortgage bonds, bonds that are now known by another name. Toxic assets. Ratings agencies — Moodys, Fitch and Standard and Poors — used to help sort the good stuff from the bad in the bond world. Their reputations aren’t so good now, so regulators are looking to some sophisticated bond investors for help. From New York, Jill Barshay explains.

JILL BARSHAY: The ratings agencies are shooting down mortgage-backed bonds with downgrade after downgrade.

Marilyn Cohen is the president of Envision Capital Management, which invests in bonds. She says everyone in the insurance business thinks the ratings agencies are going over the top.

MARILYN Cohen: I think the regulators want some different layer of input. Who do you go to? You go to the big guys who have put their customers money on the line on these same types of securities and not only survived, but thrived.

But Cohen points out there is a conflict of interest here.

COHEN: The BlackRocks and the Pimcos of this world own similar or exactly the same securities that the insurance companies hold.

But she says their models and methods are much more sophisticated than the ratings agencies’ and they’d probably do a better job.

Birny Birnbaum is the executive director of the Center for Economic Justice, a consumer advocacy group. He says insurance regulators are being too sympathetic to the companies they oversee. If these private ratings are gentler, insurers won’t have to keep as much money on their books.

BIRNY Birnbaum: Consumers should be concerned that insurance companies don’t have the same resources to fulfill their promises as they did a year ago.

Next week the National Association of Insurance Commissioners will consider the merits of using big fund managers to rate mortgage bonds.

In New York, I’m Jill Barshay for Marketplace.

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