Who to blame? Rarely at the top of the list of black-hearted, no-good, fat-cat swindlers who made all our 401Ks vanish are the ratings agencies: Fitch Ratings, Standard & Poors, and Moody's. But they played a key part in the financial meltdown: these are the organizations that assign credit ratings on banks, companies and others that issue debt obligations such as a bond issued by the State of California or a mortgage-backed security issued by Lehman Brothers. The agencies got into all sorts of trouble this year because of an obvious conflict of interest: agency analysts are paid by the same firms they rate. There's a bunch of hearings going on where various ex-employees of the agencies are saying they had all sort of pressure placed on them to overestimate the worth of otherwise dodgy and unintelligible financial instruments like credit default swaps.Hmmm.... conflict of interest by analysts paid by the firm they rate.... sound familiar?
Industry analysts the world over derive a good chunk of their revenues – in many cases all of their revenues – from the very technology firms they then write about. When Gartner rates vendors on a Magic Quadrant or Forrester does the same in a Wave, there's a good chance that the majority of the vendors they judge are paying clients.
For sure there's differences between industry analysts and the financial rating firms. First, for most industry analysts, fees paid by technology vendors aren't ear-marked specifically to fund a “ratings report”. Especially for the bigger analysts like Gartner, Forrester and IDC, any fees paid by vendors are for general access to written research and advisory services. Second, most reputable industry analysts have a strong account base among end-users of technology – most large companies around the world have subscriptions to industry analysts so that their IT staff can get informed opinions on products and services. This means that only a fraction of their overall revenues come from vendors – in the case of Gartner and Forrester, perhaps 30-35 percent. That said, a lot of smaller firms are almost entirely reliant on vendors subscription fees to be in business.
All this came to mind when I read Gartner analyst Thomas Bittman's excellent rant on how his integrity is often questioned. Bittman points out that in 14 years as an analyst he's never let vendors unduly influence his reports, although he says he “understands” why the marketplace has the impression that “analyst firms can be bought.”
Responding to Bittman, the good people at Sage Circle, an advisory firm for vendor analyst relations professionals, point out that you don't need to be a Gartner client to get a very strong rating, and that the correlation between payment and judgment is very poor. Shamus McGillicuddy at IT Knowledge Exchange points out the inherent conflicts analysts face when they take money from vendors and consumers.
The problem is that Bittman's argument is little different than the defense made by the ratings agencies. In both cases, no matter the integrity of individual analysts, there is the clear appearance of a conflict of interest. As Bittman himself states, the marketplace will always believe that it is harder to criticize a paying client than a non-paying one.