This paper provides a new interpretation of the early rise of rating agencies in the USA (initially known as ‘mercantile agencies’). We explain this American exceptionality through an inductive approach that revisits the conventional parallel with the UK. In contrast with earlier narratives that have emphasised the role of Common Law and the greater understanding of American judges that would have supported the rise of an ethos of ‘transparency’, we argue that Mercantile Agencies prospered as a remedy to deficient bankruptcy law and weak protection of creditor rights in the USA. The result was to raise the value of the nationwide registry of defaulters which the mercantile agencies managed. This ensured the Agencies’ profitability and endowed them with resources to buy their survival in a legal environment that remained stubbornly hostile.