Liar’s LIBOR

Mainstream economics would have us believe that interest rates are determined by the “invisible hand” of the market, except on those occasions when the Federal Reserve or other central banks intervene to modulate borrowing costs. One of the benefits of the current scandal embroiling the British bank Barclays is that it reveals the flimsy and fishy nature of one of the key rate-setting mechanisms of the global financial system.

That mechanism is the British Bankers’ Association’s London Interbank Offered Rate, an interest rate index that has been around since the 1980s. While LIBOR’s primary function is to represent what it costs big banks to borrow from one another over the short term, it has become the linchpin of hundreds of trillions of dollars of financial transactions ranging from complex interest-rate swaps to adjustable-rate home mortgages.

One would think that something so crucial to the efficient functioning of capitalism would be determined in a rigorous way. LIBOR rates, it turns out, are assembled in a remarkably arbitrary manner. They are based on figures submitted each day by major banks on what they think they would have to pay at that time to borrow in ten different currencies for 15 different periods of time. The upper and lower ends of the range are removed before the actual index is calculated by Thomson Reuters on behalf of the bankers’ association, but the figures are still based on what the banks decide to report as their perceptions.

While there has been debate since the beginning about the use of perceptions rather than actual transactions, serious questions about the integrity of LIBOR date back to the early stages of the financial meltdown in 2008. In April of that year the Wall Street Journal noted growing concerns that banks, whose individual LIBOR figures are made public, were adjusting those submissions downward to disguise the fact that their increasingly shaky condition was forcing them to pay higher rates for short-term loans.

The Journal then published its own analysis concluding that banks such as Citigroup and J.P. Morgan Chase, to avoid looking desperate for cash, had been reporting significantly lower borrowing costs to LIBOR than what other indicators suggested should have been the case.

By 2011, LIBOR discrepancies had moved from the realm of financial analysis to that of government oversight. The Swiss bank UBS disclosed that its LIBOR submissions were being reviewed by U.S. and Japanese regulators, and there were reports that other institutions were involved in the probes. It soon emerged that a group of megabanks were being investigated in various countries for colluding to manipulate the LIBOR rate. This, in turn, prompted a wave of lawsuits filed by institutional investors as well as by municipal governments whose interest rate swaps became less beneficial because of artificially low LIBOR rates.

Barclays is the first bank to be penalized for LIBOR shenanigans. The $453 million it is paying to U.S. and U.K. regulators to settle the case is more an embarrassment than a serious financial burden. Moreover, no executives or traders were charged, despite the smoking-gun emails quoted in the UK Financial Services Authority’s summary of the case. And, in an arrangement that is standard operating procedure for corporate miscreants these days, Barclays negotiated a deal with the U.S. Justice Department that allows it to avoid a criminal conviction.

It was satisfying to see the bank’s CEO Robert Diamond (phot0) forced to resign after the revelation of evidence suggesting that senior executives knew very well what was going on with the LIBOR manipulation. (Diamond, an American, also had to step down as a co-host of a fundraising event in London for Mitt Romney.) Yet we then had to put up with the ridiculous spectacle of Diamond testifying to a parliamentary committee that regulators were partly to blame.

The highlight of the hearing was when Labour MP John Mann told Diamond: “Either you were complicit, grossly negligent or incompetent.” After a pause, Diamond asked. “Is there a question?”

There is no question that the big banks are corrupt and that an interest-rate-setting system that depends on honest reporting by representatives of those institutions has no legitimacy.

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