CHICAGO -- Student loan guarantee agencies are seeking ratings of their claims-paying ability to differentiate themselves and to allay concerns raised by the insolvency of a national agency in 1990.

The Nebraska Student Loan Program Inc. last week received an A2 rating on its claims-paying ability from Moody's Investors Service. The action marks the third time since May that Moody's has assigned the rating, one that indicates the degree of solvency of these nonprofit agencies.

In August, Moody's assigned an Aa3 rating to the Great Lakes Higher Education Corp., and in May, Northstar Guarantee Inc. received an A2 rating.

At the request of the student loan guarantee agencies, Moody's began issuing the ratings this year in response to concerns about the agencies' health, according to Peter Tommaney, a vice president and manager of the asset-backed group at Moody's.

He added that the agencies made their request in the aftermath of the 1990 insolvency of the Higher Education Assistance Foundation. The financial problems experienced by the foundation raised fears in the financial community that other nonprofit agencies also could experience the same fate, Tommaney explained.

He said Moody's had been considering rating the guarantee agencies "for a while" before the firm's first action rating in May.

"We have to look at [guarantee agencies] when we look at student loan bond issues, so it was a natural thing to examine," Tommaney said. "We had discussed it internally and decided to do it when we received our first request."

Tommaney said Moody's rated the guarantee agencies using the same criteria as those for corporate insurers, which also insure loans.

Student loan guarantee agencies insure lenders against losses due to borrower defaults. There are currently 47 guarantee agencies in the nation, according to Laurie Quarles, deputy director of the National Council of Higher Education Loan Programs.

Standard & Poor's Corp. currently does not rate student loan guarantee agencies, according to Calvin Wong, director of the rating agency's structured finance group. He said that recent amendments to the federal Higher Education Act raise questions about how the U.S. Department of Education will reinsure the guarantee agencies.

Wong said Standard & Poor's is waiting to see how the federal government will prop up guarantee agencies before it considers rating their ability to pay claims.

Wong said student loan guarantee agencies are a "different animal" entirely because the agencies are not government entities or corporations. He also said their overall health is an important criterion in rating revenue bonds issued to finance student loans.

Thom Dasher, chief financial officer for Northstar Guarantee in St. Paul, said his company approached Moody's after hearing that the rating agency was considering rating the claims-paying ability of guarantee agencies.

"We told [Moody's] we'd like to be the first," Dasher said.

Dasher said Northstar, which was founded in May 1991, asked for the rating to help its customers distinguish the company from existing guarantee agencies operating in Minnesota.

"We wanted to give lenders and schools something tangible that they all understood." Dasher said, adding that the rating makes it easier for banks to analyze Northstar's finances.

The concept of rating the claims-paying ability of guarantee agencies has been viewed positively by municipal finance analysts, who consider the grades a tool for potential investors of revenue bonds issued to finance the loans.

"Student loan [bond] investors are getting more sophisticated. They are looking at the claims of guarantors, their reserves, and the opinions of Moody's and others," said Robert Holloman, managing director for the structured finance group at Smith Barney, Harris Upham & Co.

Bradford N. Langs, vice president of tax-exempt fixed-income research at Kemper Securities Inc., said the rating simplifies the process of sorting through financial statements for investors as well as banks seeking a guarantee agency.

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