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Saturday August 25, 2012

The Libor fuss

The story behind the Libor scandal

SINCE the outbreak of the Libor scandal, readers' reaction has ranged from the very basic: What's this Libor? to the more mundane: How does it affect me?

Some friends have raised more critical questions: Barclays appears to have manipulated Libor to lower it; isn't that good? The problem first arose in early 2008; why isn't it resolved by now? By popular demand to demystify this very everydayness at which banks fix this far-reaching key rate, today's column will be devoted to going behind the scandal starting from the very basics about the mechanics of fixing the rate, to what really happened (why Barclays paid the huge fines in settlement), to its impact and how to fix the problem.

What's Libor

The London Inter-Bank Offered Rate (Libor) was first conceived in the 1980s as a trusty yardstick to measure the cost (interest rate) of short-term funds which highly-rated banks borrow from one another. Each day at 11am in London, the setting process at the British Bankers' Association (BBA) gets moving, recording submissions by a select group of global banks (including three large US banks) estimates of the perceived rates they would pay to borrow unsecured in “reasonable market size” for various currencies and for different maturities.

Libor is then calculated using a “trimmed” average, excluding the highest and lowest 25% of the submissions. Within minutes, the benchmark rates flash on to thousands and thousands of traders' screens around the world, and ripple onto the prices of loans, derivatives contracts and other financial instruments worth many, many times the global GDP. Indeed, it has been estimated that the Libor-based financial market is worth US$800 trillion, affecting the prices that you and me and corporations around the world pay for loans or receive for their savings.

A file photo showing a pedestrian passing a Barclays bank branch in London. Barclays has been fined £290mil (US$450mil) by
UK and US regulators for manipulating Libor. — EPA A file photo showing a pedestrian passing a Barclays bank branch in London. Barclays has been fined £290mil (US$450mil) by UK and US regulators for manipulating Libor. — EPA

Indeed, anyone with a credit card, mortgage or car loan, or fixed deposit should care about their rate being manipulated by the banks that set them. In the end, it is used as a benchmark to determine payments on the global flow of financial instruments. Unfortunately, it turns out to have been flawed, bearing in mind Libor is not an interest rate controlled or even regulated directly by the central bank. It is an average set by BBA, a private trade body.

In practice, for working purposes, Libor rates are set essentially for 10 currencies and for 15 maturities. The most important of these relates to the 3-month US dollar, i.e. what a bank would pay to borrow US dollar for 3 months from other banks. It is set by a panel of 18 banks with the top 4 and bottom 4 estimates being discarded. Libor is the simple average (arithmetic mean) of what is left. All submissions are disclosed, along with the day's Libor fix. Its European counterpart, Euro Interbank Offered Rate (Euribor), is similarly fixed in Brussels. However, Euribor banks are not asked (as in Libor) to provide estimates of what they think they could have to pay to borrow; merely estimates of what the borrowing rate between two “prime” banks should be. In practice, “prime” now refers to German banks. This simply means there is in the market a disconnect between the actual borrowing costs by banks across Europe and the benchmark. Today, Euribor is less than 1%, but Italian banks (say) have to pay 350-40 basis points above it. Around the world, there would similarly be Tibor (Tokyo Inter-Bank Offered Rate); Sibor and its related SOR (Swap-Offered Rate) in Singapore; Klibor in Kuala Lumpur; etc.

What's wrong with Libor?

Theoretically, if banks played by the rules, Libor will reflect what it's supposed to a reliable yardstick to measure what it cost banks to borrow from one another. The flaw is that, in practice, the system can be rigged. First, it is based on estimates, not actual prices at which banks have lent to or borrowed from one another. They are not transactions based, an omission that widens the scope for manipulation. Second, the bank's estimate is supposed to be ring-fenced from other parts of the bank. But unfortunately walls have “holes” often incentivised by vested-interest in profit making by the interest-rate derivatives trading arm of the business. The total market in such derivatives has been estimated at US$554 trillion in 2011. So, even small changes can imply big profits. Indeed, it has been reported that each basis point (0.01%) movement in Libor could reap a net profit of “a couple of million US dollar.”

The lack of transparency in the Libor setting mechanism has tended to exacerbate this urge to cheat. Since the scandal, damning evidence has emerged from probes by regulators in the UK and US, including whistle blowing by employees in a number of banks covering a past period of at least five years. More are likely to emerge from investigations in other nations, including Canada, Japan, EU and Switzerland. The probes cover some of the largest banks, including reportedly Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, UBS, HSBC and Deutsche Bank.

Why Barclays?

Based on what was since disclosed, the Libor scandal has set the stage for lawsuits and demands for more effective regulation the world over. It has led to renewed banker bashing and dented the reputation of the city of London. Barclays, a 300-year old British bank, is in the spotlight simply because it is the first bank to co-operate fully with regulators. It's just the beginning a matter of time before others will be put on the dock. The disclosures and evidence appear damaging. They reveal unacceptable behaviour at Barclays. Two sorts of motivation are discernible.

First, there is manipulation of Libor to trap higher profits in trading. Its traders very brazenly pushed its own money market dealers to manipulate their submissions for fixing Libor, including colluding with counter-parties at other banks. Evidence point to cartel-like association with others to fiddle Libor, with the view to profiteering (or reduce losses) on their derivative exposures. The upshot is that the bank profited from this bad behaviour. Even Bob Diamond, the outgoing Barclays CEO, admitted this doctoring of Libor in favour of the bank's trading positions was “reprehensible.”

Second, there is the rigging of Libor by submitting “lowered” rates at the onset of the credit crunch in 2007 when the authorities were perceived to be keen to bolster confidence in banks (to avoid bailouts) and keep credit flowing; while “higher” (but more realistic) rates submission would be regarded as a sign of its own financial weakness. It would appear in this context as some have argued that a “public good” of sorts was involved. In times of systemic banking crisis, regulators do have a clear motive for wanting a lower Libor. The rationale behind this approach was categorically invalidated by the Bank of England. Like it or not, Barclays has since been fined £290mil (US$450mil) by UK and US regulators for manipulating Libor (£60mil fine by the UK Financial Services Authority is the highest ever imposed even after a 30% discount because it co-operated).

Efforts at reform

Be that as it may, Libor is something of an anachronism, a throwback to a time long past when trust was more important than contract. Concern over Libor goes way back to the early 2008 when reform of the way it is determined was first mooted. BBA's system is akin to an auction. After all, auctions are commonly used to find prices where none exist. It has many variants: from the “English” auction used to sell rare paintings to the on-line auction (as in e-Bay). In the end, every action aims to elicit committed price data from bidders.

As I see it, a more credible Libor fixing system would need four key changes: (i) use of actual lending rates; (ii) outlaw (penalise) false bidding bidders need to be committed to their price; (iii) encourage non-banks also to join in the process to avoid collusion and cartelisation; and (iv) intrusively monitor the process by an outside regulator to ensure tougher oversight.

However, there are many practical challenges to the realisation of a new and improved Libor. Millions of contracts that are Libor-linked may have to be rewritten. This will be difficult and a herculean exercise in the face of lawsuits and ongoing investigations. Critical to well-intentioned reform is the will to change. But with lawsuits and prosecutions gathering pace, the BBA and banking fraternity have little choice but to rework Libor now. As I understand it, because gathering real data can often pose real problems especially at times of financial stress, the most likely solution could be a hybrid. Here, banks would continue to submit estimated cost, but would be required to back them with as many actuals as feasible. To be transparent, they might need to be audited ex-post. Such blending could offer a practical way out.

Like it or not, the global banking industry possibly faces what the Economist has since dubbed as its “tobacco moment,” referring to litigation and settlement that cost the US tobacco industry more than US$200bil in 1988. Sure, actions representing a wide-range of plaintiffs have been launched. But, the legal machinery will grind slowly. Among the claimants are savers in bonds and other instruments linked to Libor (or its equivalent), especially those dealing directly with banks involved in setting the rate. The legal process will prove complicated, where proof of “harm” can get very involved. For the banks face asymmetric risk because they act most of the time as intermediaries those who have “lost” will sue, but banks will be unable to claim from others who “gained.” Much also depends on whether the regulator “press” them to pay compensation; or in the event legal settlements get so large as to require new bailouts (for those too big to fail), to protect them. What a mess.

What, then, are we to do?

Eighty years ago banker JP Morgan jr was reported to have remarked in the midst of the Great Depression: “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 judgement and not of principle.” Indeed, bankers have since gone overboard and made some serious mistakes, from crimes against time honoured principles to downright fraud. Manipulating Libor is unacceptable. So much so bankers have since lost the public trust. It's about time to rebuild a robust but gentlemanly culture, based on the very best time-tested traditions of banking. They need to start right now.

Former banker, Dr Lin is a Harvard educated economist and a British Chartered Scientist who speaks, writes and consults on economic and financial issues. Feedback is most welcome; email: starbizweek@thestar.com.my.

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