The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that the SEC is finally considering charging the credit raters—critical components of the securitization fraud machine—with civil fraud.

The question I have when reading these scooplets is always “What took so long?” It has, after all, been nearly four years since Moody’s and S&P started saying “my bad” about hundreds of billions of dollars of mortgage assets they’d given AAA ratings. But why the investigations take so long to unfold or even to start is almost never explored, much less answered. Is it a resources issue or is it a priorities issue? Or is it just about basic competence?

After all, the press has done some good spadework in this field, and there was an April 2010 Senate report, that in the words of McClatchy’s Kevin G. Hall, found that “credit-ratings agencies knowingly gave inflated ratings to complex deals backed by shaky U.S. mortgages in exchange for lucrative fees.”

In other words, there’s been a lot of low-hanging fruit out there for some time now.

The Journal today:

Now, SEC officials are focusing on the question of whether the ratings companies committed fraud by failing to do enough research to be able to rate adequately the pools of subprime mortgages and other loans that underpinned the mortgage-bond deals, according to people familiar with the matter.

It is a common tactic for regulators to accuse financial firms of fraud for allegedly misrepresenting information to investors, either recklessly or intentionally, according to lawyers. In the case of the rating companies, the firms could face allegations from the SEC that they relied on incomplete or out-of-date information supplied to them on the pools of loans in the mortgage-bond deals or ignored clear signs of problems among subprime loans and so gave unduly high ratings to slices of the deals that were then sold to investors, say people familiar with the matter.

The SEC is looking closely at the conduct of Standard & Poor’s, a unit of McGraw-Hill Cos., said people familiar with the matter. They said the agency is also reviewing the role played by Moody’s Investors Service, owned by Moody’s Corp., in relation to at least two mortgage-bond deals.

The paper doesn’t say anything about the third wheel here, Fitch Ratings. It is it facing civil charges, and if it isn’t, then why not?

Of course, as the WSJ points out, the credit raters will try to use the First Amendment as a shield for their corruption. They say they’re just offering “opinions,” and courts have upheld that nonsense. The SEC faces a higher bar here than it would with a normal case.

The Journal has some other scooplets here too, including that press favorite Jamie Dimon’s JPMorgan Chase is about to settle for defrauding investors:

A new wave of cases involving fraud allegations against banks and other financial firms related to the deals is expected shortly, say people familiar with the matter. They said the agency is aiming for a second wave of settlements in the fall, with a third and final group possible by the end of the year.

J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. is among the first banks in line for a settlement of charges expected by the SEC, people familiar with the matter said. The New York investment bank is expected within weeks to settle these allegations related to its sale of a $1.1 billion mortgage-bond investment, called Squared, as the housing market was collapsing in early 2007. J.P. Morgan and most of the other banks that are expected to face allegations of fraud in relation to mortgage-bond deals are expected to agree to pay about half or less than the $550 million Goldman paid to settle the SEC charges, according to people familiar with the matter.

JPMorgan makes about $275 million in profit every four or five days.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.