Maybe it is a far-fetched comparison but to me developer certificates (e.g. the Sun Java Certified Programmer) are quite similar to the triple A ratings issued by companies like S&P. Let me try to explain why I think they are similar.
Basically a rating or certification agency does some quality checks for you. Banks are outsourcing the risk assessment of certain financial products to the rating agencies. I think banks should always check the risks of the product they are buying themselves. Software companies use the developer certificates to outsource the quality checking of a (potential) new employee. And if I was the person who was hiring people I wouldn’t even think about outsourcing this pre-employment check.
By outsourcing these checks we explicitly trust trust the companies providing the service. Initially this makes sense, especially when you are an HR person who doesn’t know the details about the job a potential employee has to do. The problem however is that the certification agency benefits most if they check as many people as possible with the least possible effort. Also a developer pays for his certification resulting in the situation that the developer is the main customer of the certificate authority. I don’t think we should trust the agencies blindly. This is of course similar to the situation of the rating agencies (like discussed after the USA downgrade by S&P).
So are certificates useful? I agree with Martin Fowler’s article: CertificationCompetenceCorrelation. Bottom line: He hasn’t found a correlation between certification and competence, but it may have a economic value for the developer.