The second Barclays announced its $450 million Libor settlement, it was all over - the lawyers smelled not only blood, but what may be the biggest plaintiff feeding frenzy of all time. Which is why it was only a matter of time: "State attorneys general are jumping into the widening scandal over whether banks tried to manipulate benchmark international lending rates, a move that could open a new front against the top global banks. A handful of state attorneys general said they are looking into whether they have jurisdiction over the banks, and are starting preliminary discussions to determine what kind of impact the conduct involving the Libor rate may have had in their states."
"Our office is aware of the allegations around the manipulation of the Libor, and we are working with other state agencies to determine whether Massachusetts has suffered any losses as a result," a spokesman for Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley said. A spokesman for Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said his office is aware of the recent settlement reached by British bank Barclays with U.S. and UK authorities and "will look at the case to the extent that our office might have any jurisdiction in the matter."
A spokeswoman for the Massachusetts transportation authority, MassDOT, said the agency "is actively investigating its portfolio for the purpose of determining if it was underpaid on its bonds due to the brewing Libor situation," as are many other issuers of debt whose rate is governed by Libor.
Lawyers for several states have had early discussions about whether they might pool investigative resources and launch a broader, multi-state effort, but no formal consortium has been established yet, people familiar with the discussions said. New York might be expected to lead such an effort, since most of the banks' U.S. operations are based there. A spokesman for the New York attorney general declined comment on whether the issue is being looked at.
Some municipalities, including the city of Baltimore, and funds including the Frankfurt-based Metzler Investment GmbH, which manages 47 billion euros ($59 billion) in assets, have already sued more than a dozen banks, arguing they were bilked of potentially billions of dollars.
How many potential lawsuits are we talking about here? Quite a bit in fact as the FT explains:
There are at least 900,000 outstanding US home loans indexed to Libor that were originated from 2005 to 2009, the period the key lending gauge may have been rigged, investigators have said. Those mortgages carry an unpaid principal balance of $275bn, according to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, a bank regulator.
Also, as explained here before, not only is this a legal bonanza, but it will be a political feast for the Congressional circus to earn numerous C-SPAN brownie points.
“I think the US government should be just as aggressive in getting to the bottom of this scandal as the United Kingdom has been,” said Senator Sherrod Brown, chair of the bank regulatory subcommittee on the Senate banking committee.
“This was not isolated to London, but affected tens of millions of investors, borrowers and taxpayers in our country as well,” Mr Brown added.
What does the above mean?
1) Starting today and going forward, there will be numerous essays, "analyses" and white papers, all of which will try to estimate (some on a paid basis) the damages and impact of the Libor manipulation that took place at least in the period under discussion 2005-2009. All of these will be absolutely wrong, as nobody has any clear idea of how the cumulative impact of the Libor rate, which may have been pushed below either lower or higher depending on how it suited a given BBA-member bank, over a period of years will have impacted hundreds of trillions in partially offsetting notional securities. Therefore, while one day it may have led to impairments, another day it would benefit the end-holder of a given interest-rate sensitive product. But they will try. And the bigger the number, the better, which leads us to...
2) The lawyers will crawl out of the woodwork like worms after a torrential downpour, and will all be willing to work on contingency, telling potential clients they are owed thousands, nay, millions based on such and such analysis. All they need is to have held a mortgage, or a credit card, or any variable interest liability in the 4 years in question. And to sign the dotted line.
3) The resulting lawsuits, most of which in class action format, will be of gargantuan proportions, simply to encourage settlement, as ongoing litigation will easily destroy the financial system. The litigation reserves at the TBTF banks will explode and will cause years of EPS writedowns. But at least they will be one-time charges, so the stocks don't get crushed too much. That said, forget any growth out of the banking sector, and certainly the 16 BBA member banks, all of whom are about to be sued to smithereens in civil suits as more and more banks step up and settle to avoid criminal prosecution.
4) The biggest irony is that the torrent of upcoming suits will be in effect targeting none other than the Fed. Because while banks which all were massively levered to even a one basis point move in Libor were very sensitive to the smallest variations in 3 month USD libor, end-clients who did not have this leverage were far less impaired. But that doesn't matter: after all the same clients were impaired through gross borderline criminal negligence which is all that matters in a court of law (assuming the honorable judge John Roberts is not presiding pro hac vice). Thus the entity that will be sued by proxy is the Federal Reserve, whose Federal Funds rate is really the setter for the baseline Libor rate. Note the chart below which shows that over the past decade, the 3M USD Libor and the Fed Funds rate were virtually interchangeable:
Yet while it was the Fed's decisions at the bottom of it all, unless someone implicates the Fed or the BOE further, both will get away scott free: after all what they do is public policy, for the public good and to defend their various appointed mandates. And neither pushed banks to manipulate their rates (even if both were well aware there was gambling going on here), or so they claim, even when presented with evidence to the contrary.
What will really happen, is that the private banks, having been bailed out by the central banks at the taxpayers' dime, will now serve as a buffer to protect these same institutions from rising popular anger, not just at Lieborgate, but Robosigning, Robosettlement, CDOs, rehypothecation, High Frequency Trading, toxic assets marked-to-unicorns, the end of Mark-to-Market, ZIRP, NIRP, expert networks, insider trading, MF Global, and countless other examples of what happens when financial fraud is let loose with no fear of consequence in a Bernanke Put world.
As a result, the status quo will literally buy itself a few more years as it delays the tipping point by any means necessary, in the process kicking back a little to politicians, lawyers, and the general public in exchange for a few years of subpar earnings for bank shareholders that should have been wiped out back in 2008 anyway. And everyone will be happy.
That's how Lieborgate will play out.