Rating agencies have done a great job in increasing transparency around how ratings are determined. Detailed methodologies, scorecards, and medians are a big part of that effort.
Central to the rating process is the rating committee. All rating decisions are made by a rating committee, not an individual. The rating committee provides a robust discussion of various viewpoints as it deliberates, votes, and assigns ratings to the debt instrument.
Here are five things to know about what happens in a rating committee.
1. Rating committees are presided over by a Rating Committee Chair. The Chair’s primary responsibility is to check that the committee follows numerous processes that meet company and SEC-mandated guidelines. For example, the Chair must verify that the correct methodology is being used to determine the rating, or if a rating requires additional methodologies (such as short-term rating methodologies on variable rate debt). The Chair must confirm that the rating decision will be based on verifiable facts or assessments (such as an audit) and that voting members are free of conflicts. Committees can be subject to internal and external reviews after the fact to ensure that decisions were made impartially and documented correctly.
The Chair ensures that the committee is populated with voting members who possess in-depth knowledge about the sector or related-credit knowledge (such as a higher education analyst in the case of an academic medical center) and are skilled in credit assessment. Each voting member has one vote and an equal vote. Serving as a voting member of a rating committee or as a Chair is a privilege and must be earned.
2. The rating committee discussion centers around the ability of a borrower to repay its obligations, or said another way, the likelihood of payment default. As such, debt structure is integral to the rating committee. Detailed information provided in the committee package will include information on outstanding and proposed debt (if a bond financing is imminent), debt structure risks (fixed versus variable, for example), debt service schedule (level payments or with bullets), maturities and call dates, taxable and tax-exempt debt, bank lines and revolvers, counterparty risk and termination events, derivative products such as interest rate swaps and collateral thresholds, senior-subordinate debt structures, bond and bank covenants, obligated group, and security pledge, to name a few. Leases and pension obligations are also considered, particularly when liabilities outsize the direct debt.
Rating committees review hundreds of financial metrics to assess recent financial performance and an organization’s ability to pay debt in the future. Audited financial statements, year-to-date results, and annual budgets and projections are the basis for computing the financial ratios. Non-quantitative factors include success with past strategies and capital projects, market position and essentiality, management, governance and corporate structure, workforce needs, and local economic data. Confidential information provided by the organization is also shared. The job of the lead analyst is to distill all the information and present an organized credit story to the rating committee.
3. Rating consistency is paramount. An “A” should be an “A” should be an “A.” Comparables (or “comps”) are an important part of the rating committee. Comps may include the other hospitals and health systems operating in the same state given shared Medicaid and state regulations (such as Certificate of Need or state-mandated minimum wage), workforce environment (such as the presence of active unions), and similar economic factors. Like-sized peers in the same rating category also populate comps. The type of hospital being evaluated is also important. For example, health systems that own health plans would be compared to other integrated delivery systems; likewise for children’s hospitals, academic medical centers, or subacute care providers. Medians are also a part of the comps and provide relativity to like-rated borrowers by highlighting outliers.
4. Rating committee spends time reviewing the draft report to make sure the committee’s views are accurately expressed and check that confidential information was not inadvertently revealed. If you want to know what was discussed in the rating committee, read the last rating report.
Over the years, many executives have asked to speak directly to the rating committee. While that is not possible, you can bring your voice to the discussion with an informative, well-crafted rating presentation. That brings me to my final “inside rating committee” point.
5. Rating presentations matter. Effective, informative presentations that encapsulate your organization’s strengths will be shared with the rating committee. Every slide in your presentation should send a clear message that the organization’s ability to repay the debt and exceed covenants is strong. Emphasize the positives, acknowledge the challenges, and share what your action plan is to address them. Do your homework and review what you shared with the analysts last year; they will be doing the same to prepare. Provide updates on how the strategic plans are going. If you exceeded your financial goals, explain how. If you fell short, explain why. How you tell the story is as important as the story itself. That’s how you can inform the discussion and ensure your voice is heard around the rating committee table.