Li(e)bor: The Cartel Emerges
Just when you thought the Li(e)bor scandal had jumped the shark, Germany's Spiegel brings it back front-and-center with a detailed and critical insight into the 'organized fraud' and emergence of the cartel of 'bottom of the food chain' money market traders. "The trick is that you can't do it alone" one of the 'chosen' pointed out, but regulators have noiw spoken "mechanisms are now taking effect that I only knew of from mafia films." RICO anyone? "This is a real zinger," says an insider. In the past, bank manager lapses resulted from their stupidity for having bought securities without understanding them. "Now that was bad enough. But manipulating a market rate is criminal." A portion of the industry, adds the insider, apparently doesn't realize that the writing is on the wall.
There have been plenty of banking scandals, but none quite like this: Investigators and political leaders believe that the manipulation of the Libor benchmark interest rate was the result of organized fraud. Institutions that participated could face billions in fines and penalties.
In 2005, a young trader with Moroccan roots came to Barclays: Philippe Moryoussef, who is now 44... Moryoussef traded in interest rate derivatives during his time at Barclays. He and his fellow traders knew exactly how much money they stood to lose or gain if the Libor or Euribor changed by only a fraction of a percentage point in one direction or the other.
And they apparently did everything they could to eliminate happenstance. Moryoussef communicated by phone or email with colleagues inside and outside the bank almost daily to steer interest rates in the right direction. To do so, they sent inquiries to the people who were responsible for inputting the Libor rates: the money market traders.
In the glitzy world of investment banking, money market traders were at the bottom of the pecking order before the financial crisis. They were not involved in major deals, and they could only dream of the kinds of bonuses stock and bond traders received. "They were always at the bottom of the food chain," says a former investment banker.
It was a conspiratorial group of underdogs who worked for various banks and met at least once a month for a beer or a mojito in New York, London or Frankfurt. By the middle of the last decade, when there seemed to be a surplus of money at the banks, they all had the same problem: They were derided or, worse yet, ignored by their colleagues in the trading rooms of major banks.
But what if it were possible to know where interest rates were headed at the end of the day, or even in the next hour? What if a few traders could manipulate the ups and downs of interest rates?
By 2005 at the latest, the traders would seem to have begun realizing just how much power they had were they able to collaborate within their small group. There was no need for formal contracts between large institutions, merely agreements among friends. A pointer here, a few traders meeting for lunch there, and soon the group had formed a global cartel that, according to investigators, reached from Japan to Europe to Canada.
"Come on over; I'll open a bottle of Bollinger," a trader, inebriated with his success, wrote to a colleague after the Libor rate had been set. Adair Turner of the British regulatory agency quotes the email as evidence of "a culture of cynical greed in the trading rooms."
The Organized Fraud
"If the rate remains unchanged, I'm a dead man," a trader emailed to a colleague who was responsible for Libor in October 2006. The traders sent at least 173 inquiries of this nature between 2005 and May 2009 for the dollar Libor alone. They were often successful.
"The trick is that you can't do it alone," he bragged to outside colleagues at HSBC, Société Générale and Deutsche Bank, who allegedly cooperated with him.
While the traders were initially out to increase their bonuses, the manipulation took on a different dimension during the crisis. When the first banks began to wobble in 2007, it became more difficult for many financial companies to borrow money -- a problem that would normally be reflected in higher Libor rates.
Now even top managers at Barclays, alarmed by media reports, were instructing the Libor men to input lower rates. In October 2008, the manipulation became a question of survival for Barclays. On Oct. 29, a concerned Paul Tucker, now the deputy governor of the Bank of England, contacted Barclays CEO Diamond. Tucker wanted to know why the bank was consistently inputting such high interest rates into the daily Libor report.
Diamond told a parliamentary committee that Tucker had suggested to report lower interest rates for the Libor, which Tucker staunchly denies. Diamond, for his part, prepared a transcript of the telephone conversation he had had with Tucker on that day, in which he had mentioned political pressure. After that, his chief operating officer spoke with the money market traders. The underdogs were suddenly being heard on the executive board, and had become the bank's potential saviors.
Barclays wasn't the only bank that was having trouble gaining access to money in the fall of 2008. UBS, Citigroup and the Royal Bank of Scotland, now prime suspects in addition to Barclays, had to be bailed out by their respective governments. Germany's WestLB, which was involved in the Libor calculation at the time, was also seen as a problem case, although this wasn't reflected in the Libor rates it was reporting.
The Failure of the Regulators
On April 11, 2008, a member of the Barclays money market team called Fabiola Ravazzolo, an employee of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Barclays employee: "LIBORs do not reflect where the market is trading, which is, you know, the same as a lot of other people have said."
Ravazzolo: "Mm hmm."
A few moments later, the Barclays man, according to the transcript of the conversation released by the bank, said: "We're not posting, um, an honest Libor."
Barclays-Mann: "We are doing it, because, um, if we didn't do it it draws, um, unwanted attention on ourselves."
There was no sense of outrage, nor did Ravazzolo question the Barclays employee about the details. A similar conversation transpired with another Fed employee a few months later.
These are transcripts of failure...
Meanwhile, the US Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) had been investigating the issue since 2008, and its efforts eventually led to a worldwide investigation.
The Episode Is Blown Wide Open
"Mechanisms are now taking effect that I only knew of from mafia films," a shaken financial regulator said recently. Since investigations have gone into high gear in New York, London, Brussels and elsewhere, suspected bank executives have been coming clean.
They are under great pressure. Last year, the European Commission filed several antitrust suits against various banks. Antitrust suits are considered to be the sharpest weapons in business law because they allow Brussels to impose stiff penalties on cartel participants.
"In our investigations, we concentrate on suspicious cartel agreements that include derivatives. This includes possible secret agreements about the determination of these lending rates," says European Competition Commissioner Joaquín Almunia. In other words, the investigators are interested in more than the manipulation of global interest rates to benefit specific parties. It's also possible that the enormous market for derivatives was manipulated.
"Derivatives traders are also believed to have agreed upon the difference between the buy and sell prices (spreads) of derivatives, thereby selling these financial instruments to customers under conditions that were not customary in the market," says the Swiss Competition Commission, which is also investigating possible cartels.
It is difficult to find clear evidence, such as a written cartel agreement. But in Brussels alone, more than 40 banks have contacted authorities to report what they know about years of manipulation...
What the Banks Could Now Face
German banks must have pricked up their ears when BaFin President Elke König recently spoke about the Libor scandal. "Basically, banks must establish suitable reserves for possible losses," König concluded.
Investors, like Vienna hedge fund FTC Capital, have made it clear that they do not intend to let up. They feel obligated to their customers to file claims for damages, explains FTC executive Majcen...
There are already 20 lawsuits in the United States, some of which have been combined into class action suits. The plaintiffs range from the City of Baltimore to police and firefighter's pension funds, the City of Dania Beach, Florida, and Russian oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky.
They feel encouraged by the actions of regulators. "Both the American CFTC and the FSA have done excellent investigative work," says Majcen. Bank analysts expect that other institutions could face fines similar to the one imposed on Barclays. In fact, it ought to be in the banks' best interest to quickly settle their cases. "But they're afraid, because since Barclays, they know that it isn't just about money, but also about making heads roll," says a major shareholder of Deutsche Bank.
German attorneys are also lining up to represent potential clients. "A few institutional investors have already contacted us," says Marc Schiefer of the law firm TILP in the southern German city of Tübingen.
Years could go by before damage suits are ruled on...
Possible Libor-related liabilities would cause serious problems at WestLB, or its successor company Portigon. The once-proud state-owned bank is in the process of being liquidated, at a cost of billions to its former owners, the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia and savings banks. The Libor scandal could further increase the burden on taxpayers.
The call for stricter regulation is also getting louder in politics once again... "cheap populism."
"This is a real zinger," says an insider. In the past, bank manager lapses resulted from their stupidity for having bought securities without understanding them. "Now that was bad enough. But manipulating a market rate is criminal." A portion of the industry, adds the insider, apparently doesn't realize that the writing is on the wall.
The parties involved, including Deutsche Bank and its new co-CEO Jain, cannot expect leniency when charges are investigated. "We can't make any allowances for high-profile names," say officials in the capital.