Why a rating agency should be concerned about the survival of the company it’s assessing

MIT Sloan Assoc. Prof. Gustavo Manso

My latest paper* focuses on the difficulties that rating agencies face in setting a credit score that accurately reflects the credit quality of a borrower, but also takes into account the effect that score will have on the borrower’s credit quality in the future. When a rating agency cuts a given company’s credit rating, investor confidence in that company’s ability to meet its debt obligations is undermined, making it very difficult for the company to raise cash. The downgrade often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In my paper I talk about the ideal accurate credit rating environment. It’s important to note that there may be several possible ratings that are accurate for a particular firm or country at any point in time, but some of these ratings lead to more distress than others. I believe rating agencies ought to be careful to select the best rating: one that provides an accurate portrayal of the company’s credit worthiness, but also takes into account the continued existence of the company in question. These ratings – where the agencies have a small bias towards the ultimate survival of the companies they evaluate – allow the companies to borrow money at a lower interest rate and therefore improve their chances of withstanding any financial shocks that may arise.

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What type of corporate culture is best for innovation? One that tolerates failure

MIT Sloan Assoc. Prof. Pierre Azoulay

What type of corporate culture is best for innovation? How ought firms and managers encourage their workers to be more creative? And if those workers fail in the pursuit of creativity, is that necessarily a bad thing?

These are the questions we wanted to answer in our latest paper.* We used life sciences as the backdrop of our research comparing similarly accomplished scientists who received either financial support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), the large non-profit biomedical research organization, or federal funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The HHMI money lasts five years and is often renewed (at least once); the program “urges its researchers to take risks … even if it means uncertainty or the chance of failure.” The NIH grants, on the other hand, last three to five years, have more specific aims, and their renewal is far from an assured thing.

MIT Sloan Assoc. Prof. Gustavo Manso

Among other things, we looked at how often these scientists published articles that were among the top 5 percent or top 1 percent of the most cited papers in their fields. We found that the HHMI-funded scientists produced twice as many papers in the top 5 percent in terms of citations, and three times as many in the top 1 percent, relative to a control group of similarly accomplished scientists funded by the NIH. But they also were more prone to underperform relative to their own previous citation accomplishments. The take-away lesson is clear: biologists whose funding encourages them to take risks and tolerates initial research failures produce breakthrough ideas at a much higher rate than peers whose funding is dependent upon meeting closely defined, short-term research targets. But there is a cost associated with these long-term incentives, since they also  lead to more frequent “duds.”

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