THE unfolding story of how Barclays — and, in all likelihood, other big banks — rigged interest rates is full of telling tidbits about the way Wall Street works. It also represents yet another teachable moment.
By now the world knows that Barclays manipulated the most widely used benchmark rate, the London interbank offered rate. But Barclays is just one member of the cozy club that sets the Libor, which is supposed to be based on the average rate at which large banks can borrow money overnight. It’s not based on actual transactions, however — and that leaves room for mischief.
And mischief there was, according to e-mails and other documents that Barclays has turned over to regulators in the United States and Britain. The upshot: traders colluded by posting rates that either helped their bets in the markets or their bank’s perceived financial strength during the harrowing days of 2008.
Manipulating the Libor is a big deal because it affects the cost of money for almost everyone. The Libor is used to set rates on mortgages, credit cards and all manner of loans, personal and commercial. The amount of money affected by the phony rates is at least $500 trillion, British regulators have estimated.
Barclays is not the only bank under investigation for rigging the Libor. It was simply the first to own up to the behavior and settle with regulators, paying $450 million. Other banks will almost certainly follow, and the documents bound to bubble up in those cases will surely prove fascinating.
One of the most revealing exchanges in the Barclays documents came when a bank official tried to describe why Barclays’s improper postings were not as problematic as those of other banks. “We’re clean but we’re dirty-clean, rather than clean-clean,” an executive said in a phone conversation. Talk about defining deviancy down.
“Dirty clean” versus “clean clean” pretty much sums up Wall Street’s view of cheating. If everybody does it, nobody should be held accountable if caught. Alas, many United States regulators and prosecutors seem to have bought into this argument.
British authorities have not. Last week’s defenestrations of Marcus Agius, the Barclays chairman; Robert E. Diamond Jr., its hard-charging chief executive; and Jerry del Missier, its chief operating officer, apparently occurred at the behest of the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority, the nation’s top securities regulator. (Mr. del Missier also seems to have lost his post as chairman of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, the big Wall Street lobbying group. His name vanished last week from the list of board members on the group’s Web site.)
MR. DIAMOND seemed shocked to be pushed out. An American by birth, he probably thought he’d be subject to American rules of engagement when confronted with evidence of wrongdoing at his bank. You know how it works on this side of the Atlantic: faced with a scandal, most chief executives jettison low-level employees, maybe give up a bonus or two — and then ride out the storm. Regulators, if they act, just extract fines from the shareholders.
British officials are taking a different approach with this scandal. George Osborne, the chancellor of the Exchequer, was direct in his assessment of Barclays’s activities. “It is clear that what happened in Barclays and potentially other banks was completely unacceptable, was symptomatic of a financial system that elevated greed above all other concerns and brought our economy to its knees,” he said in a statement on June 28. “Punish wrongdoing. Right the wrong of the age of irresponsibility.”
Later, in a speech to Parliament, Mr. Osborne voiced the question that so many have asked recently in the United States. “Fraud is a crime in ordinary business — why shouldn’t it be so in banking?” he asked.
Perhaps the biggest lesson from the Libor scandal is how dangerous it is to rely on interested parties to set interest rates or prices of financial instruments, rather than on actual transactions conducted by investors. The Libor has been set in the current and vulnerable manner since the late 1960s. Maybe it has never been rigged before, but who knows?
It is far better to have the transparent and verifiable record of prices created by a tape of electronic trading. Such records are standard pricing mechanisms for many securities. But not all.
Prices of derivatives, especially credit default swaps that trade one-to-one, can still be based on one dealer’s say-so. That’s why a rule proposed by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission that would require pretrade price transparency in the swaps market is so important.
But it is also why Wall Street is pushing back, especially on the commission’s proposal that swap execution facilities provide market participants, before they buy or sell, with easily accessible prices on “a centralized electronic screen.” The commission’s rule would eliminate the one-to-one dealings by telephone that are so lucrative to traders and so expensive to investors.
A bill intended to gut the commission’s proposed rule and to maintain dealers’ profits in derivatives failed to go anywhere after being passed last year by two committees in the House of Representatives — Financial Services and Agriculture. That was a good thing.
But there are rumblings in Washington that this bill has resurfaced and that it may be quietly attached to a House Agriculture Committee appropriations bill scheduled for a vote this month. The bill, if passed, would bar the requirement for a centralized pricing platform to shed light on the enormous swaps market. It would also prevent regulators from requiring that a number of participants provide price quotations to customers, a way to ensure fairness.
It’s hard to believe, in the wake of the Libor mess, that Wall Street and its supporters in Congress would continue to battle against price transparency in any market. Then again, that’s precisely what they did after the credit crisis.
With each new financial imbroglio, the gulf widens between Main Street’s opinion of Wall Street and the industry’s view of itself. When Mr. del Missier, the former Barclays chief operating officer, took over as chairman of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association last November, he said: “We will continue to work on maintaining and burnishing the level of confidence investors have in our markets, in our own financial institutions, and in the general economic outlook for the future.”
Given the Libor scandal, let’s just say good luck with that.