Rigging the Casino

I attended an evening lecture some weeks ago at the Marshall-Wythe law school of the College of William & Mary, my old alma mater, in Williamsburg, Virginia. One of the topics raised during the lecture was a detailed analysis of the LIBOR scandal of 2012, a fascinating tale of systematic manipulation of a benchmark interest rate, supported by a culture of fraud in the world’s biggest banks, and in an environment where little or no regulation prevailed.

After decades of abuse that enriched the big banks, their shareholders, executives and traders, at the expense of others, investigations and lawsuits were finally initiated, and the subsequent fines and penalties were huge. The London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) rate is a rate of interest, first computed in 1985 by the British Banking Association (BBA), the Bank of England and others, to serve as a readily available reference or benchmark rate for many financial contracts and arrangements. Prior to its creation, contracts utilized many privately negotiated rates, which were difficult to verify, and not necessarily related to the market rate for the security in question. The LIBOR rate, which is the average interest rate estimated by leading banks that they would be charged if they were to borrow from other banks, provided a simple alternative that came to be widely used. For example, in the United States in 2008 when the subprime lending crisis began, around 60 percent of prime adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) and nearly all subprime mortgages were indexed to the US dollar LIBOR. In 2012, around 45 percent of prime adjustable rate mortgages and over 80 percent of subprime mortgages were indexed to the LIBOR. American municipalities also borrowed around 75 percent of their money through financial products that were linked to the LIBOR.

At the time of the LIBOR scandal, 18 of the largest banks in the world provided their estimates of the costs they would have had to pay for a variety of interbank loans (loans from other banks) just prior to 11:00 a.m. on the submission day. These estimates were submitted to Reuters news agency (who acted for the BBA) for calculation of the average and its publication and dissemination. Reuters set aside the four highest and four lowest estimates, and averaged the remaining ten.

So huge were the investments affected that a small manipulation in the LIBOR rate could have a very significant impact on the profit of the banks and of the traders involved in the manipulation. For example, in 2012 the total of derivatives priced relative to the LIBOR rate has been estimated at from $300-$600 trillion, so a manipulation of 0.1% in the LIBOR rate would generate an error of $300-600 million per annum. Consequently, it is not surprising that, once the manipulations came to light, the settlements and fines assessed were huge. By December 31, 2013, 7 of the 18 submitting banks charged with manipulation, had paid fines and settlements of upwards of $ 2 billion. In addition, the European Commission gave immunity for revealing wrongdoing to several the banks thereby allowing them to avoid fines including: Barclays €690 million, UBS €2.5 billion, and Citigroup €55 million.

Some examples of the types of losses caused by LIBOR manipulations are:

Manipulation of home mortgage rates: Many home owners borrow their mortgage loans on a variable- or adjustable-rate basis, rather than a fixed-rate basis. Consequently, many of these borrowers receive a new rate at the first of every month based on the LIBOR rate. A study prepared for a class action lawsuit has shown that on the first of each month for 2007-2009, the LIBOR rate rose more than 7.5 basis points on average. One observer estimated that each LIBOR submitting bank during this period might have been liable for as much as $2.3 billion in overcharges.

Municipalities lost on interest rate swaps: Municipalities raise funds through the issuance of bonds, and many were encouraged to issue variable-rate, rather than fixed-rate, bonds to take advantage of lower interest payments. For example, the saving could be as much as $1 million on a $100 million bond. After issue, the municipalities were encouraged to buy interest rate swaps from their investment banks to hedge their risk of volatility in the variable rates by converting or swapping into a fixed rate arrangement. The seller of the swap agrees to pay the municipality for any requirement to pay interest at more than the fixed rate agreed if interest rates rise, but if interest rates fall the swap seller buys the bonds at the lower variable interest rate. However, the variable rate was linked to the LIBOR rate, which was artificially depressed, thus costing U.S. municipalities as much as $10 billion. Class action suits were launched to recover these losses which cost municipalities, hospitals, and other non-profits as much as $600 million a year; the remaining liability assisted the municipalities in further settlement negotiations.

Freddie Mac Losses: On March 27, 2013, Freddie Mac sued 15 banks for their losses of up to $3 billion due to LIBOR rate manipulations. Freddie Mac accused the banks of fraud, violations of antitrust law and breach of contract, and sought unspecified damages for financial harm, as well as punitive damages and treble damages for violations of the Sherman Act. To the extent that defendants used false and dishonest USD LIBOR submissions to bolster their respective reputations, they artificially increased their ability to charge higher underwriting fees and obtain higher offering prices for financial products to the detriment of Freddie Mac and other consumers.

Liability Claims/Antitrust cases (Commodities-manipulations claims): Other organizations also sued the LIBOR rate submitting banks for anti-competitive behavior, partly because of the possibility of treble damages, but they had to demonstrate related damages to be successful. Nonetheless, credible plaintiffs included the Regents of the University of California who filed a suit claiming fraud, deceit, and unjust enrichment.

All of this can be of little surprise to fraud examiners. The ACFE lists the following features of moral collapse in an organization or business sector:

  1. Pressure to meet goals, especially financial ones, at any cost;
  2. A culture that does not foster open and candid conversation and discussion;
  3. A CEO who is surrounded with people who will agree and flatter the CEO, as well as a CEO whose reputation is beyond criticism;
  4. Weak boards that do not exercise their fiduciary responsibilities with diligence;
  5. An organization that promotes people based on nepotism and favoritism;
  6. Hubris. The arrogant belief that rules are for other people, but not for us;
  7. A flawed cost/benefit attitude that suggests that poor ethical behavior in one area can be offset by good ethical behavior in another area.

Each of the financial institutions involved in the LIBOR scandal struggled, to a greater or lesser degree with one or more of these crippling characteristics and, a distressing few, manifested all of them.

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