The whole thing smacks of extortion. But if the situation was bad with governments and corporations, when it came to the brave new world of "structured finance", the ratings agencies lost all control and all respect. As the US property boom took off, a huge number of organisations were issuing a vast array of property-related investments. The agencies began clambering over each other to rate the CDOs - the toxic products into which the Obama Administration is now forced to tip trillions of dollars to save the American banking system - as AAA.

Investors who bought those loans on their coveted AAA clearly did not want them downgraded even when the economy began to tank. And, as it transpired, the ratings agencies had never even contemplated factoring a property downturn into their calculations. Instead of providing a sobering influence, the ratings agencies pumped up the boom. So far, their role in the global financial crisis has been largely overlooked. A US Senate committee last October subjected the heads of the three main firms - all of whom had earned megamillion-dollar salaries through the boom - to an embarrassing grilling. But now they are back at it, as though nothing has happened. It is business as usual.