LIBOR Scandal: The Crime of the Century
The latest interest-rate-fixing LIBOR scandal is being heralded as the most egregious in a generation
The 21st has been a banner century for financial and accounting scandals. Enron, the dotcom bust, the subprime-mortgage crisis and the bank bailouts have all contributed to the very low esteem in which the American public holds Corporate America in general, and high finance in particular. So it is no small feat that the latest interest-rate-fixing LIBOR scandal is being heralded as the most egregious in a generation or, as Robert Scheer put it in the Nation, “the crime of the century.”
LIBOR is an acronym for the London interbank offered rate, and it is the average interest rate the world’s largest banks pay when they borrow money. And this figure (or figures, as different LIBORs are calculated for different loan maturities and currencies) is used to price hundreds of trillions of dollars worth of financial instruments, from high-yield corporate debt to student loans.
Considering the importance of this benchmark rate and the financial industry’s recent track record, it is no wonder that many in the press are up in arms about Barclays’ recent admission that it intentionally submitted false rates in order to manipulate LIBOR for its own gain. Barclays has been fined more than $450 million by British and American regulators, but it is by no means the only bank thought to have deceptively tried to influence LIBOR — thus the outrage expressed this past week in the media.
Scheer, for instance, pulled no punches in his polemic:
“Modern international bankers form a class of thieves the likes of which the world has never before seen. Or, indeed, imagined … It reveals that behind the world’s financial edifice lies a reeking cesspool of unprecedented corruption. The modern-day robber barons pillage with a destructive abandon totally unfettered by law or conscience and on a scale that is almost impossible to comprehend.”
So why did traders at Barclays submit false LIBOR figures? There are two ways in which Barclays and other large banks could have benefited. The first is confidence. Two of the safeguards built into the computation of LIBOR are that all the banks’ submissions are public, and the top and bottom four are removed from the calculation. This way no one bank can effectively raise or lower LIBOR in order to profit from prior knowledge of where the rate will be, and transparency will dissuade banks from trying.
But because of the public nature of the submissions, there is a danger that a bank will understate its LIBOR submissions in order to boost markets’ confidence in the institution. This prospect became more likely during the financial crisis, when a bank reporting high borrowing costs could have dire and perhaps fatal effects.
The more pernicious charge is that derivatives traders Barclays, along with several other as-yet-unnamed banks, colluded to influence LIBOR, not so that investors would have confidence in them, but so that they could reap profits on derivatives trades. According to a report in the Economist:
“The sums involved might have been huge. Barclays was a leading trader of these sorts of derivatives, and even relatively small moves in the final value of LIBOR could have resulted in daily profits or losses worth millions of dollars.”
The first contention, that banks were systematically understating their borrowing costs, with the tacit support — as former Barclays CEO Bob Diamond alleged in hearings last week — of the regulators, is a serious one. Those responsible for this behavior should be punished, but future incidents of such behavior could be prevented by merely reforming the way LIBOR is calculated.
The second charge is graver, because it speaks to the moral compass, or total lack thereof, of the world’s financial professionals. Much of the American public believes that financiers are greedy scoundrels who will stop at nothing — including blatant fraud — just to make a buck. This is an oversimplification. Finance is a necessary and societally beneficial industry. But scandal after scandal has proved that the industry’s culture is deeply flawed, and that it has, as the Economist put it, a “rotten heart.”
So is the LIBOR scandal the crime of the century? The full extent of it has yet to be revealed, and if it is discovered that many more banks were lying about the rates at which they were borrowing, or worse, working together to defraud the greater public through LIBOR, then it’s hard to think of a recent corporate offense that’s more troubling. But, more important, the cumulative effect of these scandals is that the public and the government no longer trust the industry to set its own standards for acceptable behavior. Diminished confidence in the financial industry by businesses and the public will retard economic growth generally. And if an industry as vital as finance is unable to police itself, then government has the right — and perhaps the responsibility — to do more policing itself. Unfortunately, the price of that increased regulation, in whatever form it takes, will be borne by all of us.http://www.thenation.com/article/168751/libor-crime-century#
Libor: The Crime of the Century
Forget Bernie Madoff and Enron’s Ken Lay—they were mere amateurs in financial crime. The current Libor interest rate scandal, involving hundreds of trillions in international derivatives trade, shows how the really big boys play. And these guys will most likely not do the time because their kind rewrites the law before committing the crime.
Modern international bankers form a class of thieves the likes of which the world has never before seen. Or, indeed, imagined. The scandal over Libor—short for London interbank offered rate—has resulted in a huge fine for Barclays Bank and threatens to ensnare some of the world’s top financers. It reveals that behind the world’s financial edifice lies a reeking cesspool of unprecedented corruption. The modern-day robber barons pillage with a destructive abandon totally unfettered by law or conscience and on a scale that is almost impossible to comprehend.
How to explain a $450 million settlement for one bank whose defense, in a plea bargain worked out with regulators in London and Washington, is that every institution in their elite financial circle was doing it? Not just Barclays but JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and others are now being investigated on suspicion of manipulating the Libor rate, so critical to a $700 trillion derivatives market.
Caught as the proverbial deer in the headlights, Barclays Chairman Robert E. Diamond Jr. resigned this week and offered a plaintive defense to the British Parliament that he learned only recently that his bank was manipulating the index on which so large a part of international trade is based. That is plausible only if we assume he was paid $10 million a year to be deliberately ignorant. The Wall Street Journal had exposed this scandal fully four years ago but his bank continued to participate in it nonetheless.
“Study Casts Doubt on Key Rate” was the headline on the May 29, 2008, investigative report, which concluded: “Major banks are contributing to the erratic behavior of a crucial global lending benchmark, a Wall Street Journal analysis shows.” Even then, according to the report, it was known that the Libor rate was being manipulated “to act as if the banking system was doing better than it was at critical junctures in the financial crisis.”
Fast-forward four years to Diamond’s testimony before Parliament this week in which the CEO claimed his recent discovery of a pattern of interest manipulation by Barclays had made him “physically sick.” Who was to blame? According to the executive, subordinates acting behind his back.
The American-born banker, who has dual citizenship in the United States and Britain, is well versed in financial chicanery, having started by putting together derivatives packages at Credit Suisse First Boston back in 1996. He was compelled under parliamentary questioning Wednesday to admit that “I can’t sit here and say no one in the industry [knew] about the problems with Libor. There was an issue out there and it should have been dealt with more broadly.”
He couldn’t deny widespread chicanery within his bank because, as in the collapse of Enron a decade ago, investigators had uncovered an e-mail record of market manipulation so glaring that if the top executives were unaware, it was because they didn’t want to know.
As the New York Times editorialized: “The evidence, cited by the Justice Department—which Barclays agreed is ‘true and accurate’—is damning. ‘Always happy to help,’ one employee wrote in an email after being asked to submit false information. ‘If you know how to keep a secret, I’ll bring you in on it,’ wrote a Barclays trader to a trader at another bank, referring to their strategies for mutual gain. If that’s not conspiracy and price-fixing, what is?”
The US Justice Department made a deal with Barclays, and although it may prosecute some individuals in the scam, it agreed not to go after the bank itself. “Such an agreement makes sense only if that cooperation will allow prosecutors to nail other banks that have been involved in setting the rates, including potential cases against Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and HSBC,” the Times editorial said.
Both Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase were reported by the Wall Street Journal years ago to be suspected of rigging the Libor interest rate. The leaders of those banks, despite such media exposure, clearly remained confident enough to continue on their merry way.
The sad reality is that they will probably get away with it. The world of high finance is by design as obscure and opaque as the bankers and their political surrogates can make it, and even this most recent crack in their defense of deception will soon be made to go away.