LIBOR – a tobacco moment for banking?

Here’s a super leader from the Economist on the LIBOR scandal…the video is pretty good also.

“Since we have not more power of knowing the future than any other men, we have made many mistakes (who has not during the past five years?), but our mistakes have been errors of judgment and not of principle.” So reflected J.P. Morgan junior in 1933, in the middle of a financial crisis. Today’s bankers can draw no such comfort from their behaviour. The attempts to rig LIBOR (the London inter-bank offered rate), a benchmark interest rate, not only betray a culture of casual dishonesty; they set the stage for lawsuits and more regulation right the way round the globe. This could well be global finance’s “tobacco moment”.

it goes on:

…That could end up costing the banks a lot of money. LIBOR is used to set an estimated $800 trillion-worth of financial instruments, affecting the price of everything from simple mortgages to interest-rate derivatives. If attempts to manipulate LIBOR were successful—and the regulators think that Barclays did manage it, on occasion—then this would be the biggest securities fraud in history, affecting investors and borrowers around the world. That opens the door to litigation not just by the direct customers of implicated banks, but by anyone with a financial interest in LIBOR. The lawsuits have already begun.

For the uninitiated amongst us it’s a fairly horrifying journey to discover how LIBOR is calculated. Here’s the Wiki:

The London Interbank Offered Rate is the average interest rate estimated by leading banks in London that they would be charged if borrowing from other banks. It is usually abbreviated to Libor or LIBOR, or more officially to BBA Libor (for British Bankers’ Association Libor) or the trademark bbalibor. It is a benchmark, along with the Euribor, for interest rates all around the world.
Libor rates are calculated for different lending periods: overnight, one week, one month, two months, six months, etc., and published daily after 11 am (London time) by Thomson Reuters. Many financial institutions, mortgage lenders and credit card agencies set their own rates relative to (and typically higher than) Libor.

OK, all well and good so far, and there’s quite a simple and elegant bit of Maths to settle the rates – the interquartile mean of rates submitted (by between eight and twenty banks depending on the currency) is calculated (ignore top and bottom 25% as outliers and average the middle half).
It’s one of those things however when elegance disguises lack of substance. There is no designed process for the banks’ estimates with no requirement to relate to any actual transactions.
So back to the detail in the Economist again – the rotten heart of finance.

In theory, LIBOR is supposed to be a pretty honest number because it is assumed, for a start, that banks play by the rules and give truthful estimates. The market is also sufficiently small that most banks are presumed to know what the others are doing. In reality, the system is rotten. First, it is based on banks’ estimates, rather than the actual prices at which banks have lent to or borrowed from one another. “There is no reporting of transactions, no one really knows what’s going on in the market,” says a former senior trader closely involved in setting LIBOR at a large bank. “You have this vast overhang of financial instruments that hang their own fixes off a rate that doesn’t actually exist.”
A second problem is that those involved in setting the rates have often had every incentive to lie, since their banks stood to profit or lose money depending on the level at which LIBOR was set each day. Worse still, transparency in the mechanism of setting rates may well have exacerbated the tendency to lie, rather than suppressed it. Banks that were weak would not have wanted to signal that fact widely in markets by submitting honest estimates of the high price they would have to pay to borrow, if they could borrow at all.

Right so Barclays have been fined £300m for attempting to manipulate LIBOR , the chair and Chief Executive have resigned and the share price has slumped…..all over?
Maybe not: (from istockanalyst). There’s a lot of numbers there – the analysis looks at the 3 month $ LIBOR and reaches no conclusion on collusion but the fact is that Barclays were consistently the highest submitter and thus routinely eliminated from the LIBOR calculation.
OK – what does that mean? – Back in the Economist article:

The allegation by Barclays that some banks seemed to be fiddling their data would appear to be supported by the data themselves. Over the period of the financial crisis, the estimates of its borrowing costs submitted by Barclays were generally among the top four in the LIBOR panel (see chart 2). Those consistently among the lowest four were some of the soundest banks in the world, with rock solid balance-sheets, such as JPMorgan Chase and HSBC. However, among banks regularly submitting much lower borrowing costs than Barclays were banks that subsequently lost the confidence of markets and had to be bailed out. In Britain these included Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and HBOS……
…Regulators around the world have woken up, however belatedly, to the possibility that these vital markets may have been rigged by a large number of banks. The list of institutions that have said they are either co-operating with investigations or being questioned includes many of the world’s biggest banks. Among those that have disclosed their involvement are Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, HSBC, JPMorgan Chase, RBS and UBS…….
A particular worry for banks is that they face an asymmetric risk because they stand in the middle of many transactions. For each of their clients who may have lost out if LIBOR was manipulated, another will probably have gained. Yet banks will be sued only by those who have lost, and will be unable to claim back the unjust gains made by some of their other customers. Lawyers acting for corporations or other banks say their clients are also considering whether they can walk away from contracts with banks such as long-term derivatives priced off LIBOR.

Tobacco moment? Lawsuits and settlements cost America’s tobacco industry $200 billion in 1998.
This could be worse…more banking bailouts….?

Welsh Nationalist. Rugby Fan. Know a bit about History and Railways…