In Britain, the investigations into Barclays Bank manipulating the benchmark Libor rate have begun in earnest. Parliament approved an official inquiry into the Libor scandal, though only at the Parliamentary level rather than an independent investigation. This came after a shouting match between the Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, and the shadow chancellor, Labour’s Ed Balls. Outside of Parliament, the Serious Fraud Office announced their own criminal investigation. So we’re on the road to seeing criminal prosecutions come out of the rate-rigging scandal.
Remember that Barclays is only bearing the full weight of scrutiny right now because they decided to cooperate with a Justice Department investigation. At least 12 and as many as 16 other banks are under scrutiny in the scandal, and that includes just about every major financial institution. The fallout from that DoJ investigation is that the Libor will get calculated in a new fashion:
Under the terms of the pact with the US’ Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Barclays agreed to a six-pronged plan to “encourage” benchmark publishers, such as the British Bankers’ Association, to improve the rate-setting process by increasing transparency and creating rigorous methodologies to determine submissions.
The pact is unusual because it requires Barclays to not only beef up its internal compliance systems but to take on a role as an advocate for increased oversight for the industry.
“We’re going to use every tool we can, whether it’s enforcement tools or rule-writing tools to try to benefit the American public and make sure markets are clean of fraud and manipulation,” said Gary Gensler, chairman of the CFTC.
Martin Wheatley, the UK regulator who has been asked by the UK government to lead a review of the legal framework for Libor and other rates, said his group would consider the CFTC’s demands. The BBA is conducting its own review and a person familiar with the progress said the settlement demands were “quite sensible” and could provide a template for reform.
It would certainly represent progress for the settlement to contain new standards to prevent future rate manipulation, but it would be harder to hold to them without some accountability for those who manipulated the rates. That’s why calls to purge the entire Barclays board, which is simultaneously tied up with just about every other multinational corporate board, seem more appropriate.
If this is culture change, it’s glacially slow. Five years after Northern Rock signalled a banking collapse that impoverished nations, there is no reckoning. Citizens are impotently angry but business as usual prevails [...] We need know nothing of these directors’ individual talents or deficiencies: they are all responsible for a bank that went out of control. Whether they were all “physically sick” together with Diamond when they heard the news of Libor-cheating in their trading rooms that inflated bonuses, who knows. But here is an establishment web, a hard-wired network of interests intertwined with regulators and ethics-setters where a thorough sacking would send an electric culture-change signal.
These signals matter more than technocratic calls to change reporting standards at this point. You have individuals that have no problem with rigging interest rates that affect tens of millions of borrowers. Applying more standards on that process isn’t entirely likely to help.