It’s hard to see what is news about the latest Libor news but it exists so let’s paste it here:
Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc managers condoned and participated in the manipulation of global interest rates, indicating that wrongdoing extended beyond the four traders the bank has fired.
In an instant-message conversation in late 2007, Jezri Mohideen, then the bank’s head of yen products in Singapore, instructed colleagues in the U.K. to lower RBS’s submission to the London interbank offered rate that day, according to two people with knowledge of the discussion. No reason was given in the message as to why he wanted a lower bid. The rate-setter agreed, submitting the number Mohideen sought, the people said.
One way to conceptualize Libor is that it’s the interest rate at which banks lend to each other on an unsecured basis. This is fine as far as it goes but late 2007 was farther than it went; by that point banks were skittish about unsecured lending and Mervyn King was already conceptualizing Libor as the interest rate at which banks don’t lend to each other. But of course there are lots of rates at which banks don’t lend to each other; 714.03% per annum is, for example, a perfectly good interest rate at which I will assert banks don’t lend to each other. So King’s formulation insufficiently specifies.
But that means you need a new concept! It just does; you can’t avoid it by saying “well just try harder to say what rate you borrow at when you don’t borrow.” How do you get the new concept? Beats me; the CFTC has listed factors that were kosher to consider and they include prior Libor submissions, actual and expected central bank decisions, and “research documents,” which are all, like, things you can look at, but which are none of them information about rates you can borrow at.1 Read more »
It’s time to play survey results versus revealed preferences. First:
A key interest rate for more than $500 trillion of securities worldwide will be replaced by a benchmark subject to greater government control, according to a plurality of global investors.
Forty-four percent of those responding to a quarterly Bloomberg Global Poll said the London interbank offered rate, known as Libor, will be supplanted by a more regulated model within five years. Thirty-four percent predicted the rate will continue to be set by banks in the current fashion, while 22 percent said they didn’t know.
That’s from a poll of 847 randomly selected Bloomberg users, which is sort of a fascinating data set; like, Dealbreaker is a Bloomberg user (but, sadly, not surveyed). The substance is interesting too, beyond the Libor question.*
But, anyway, the Libor question: the plurality answer is “Five years from now, do you think LIBOR will … Be replaced by something more like a government-run rate.” What is a government-run rate? Meh, whatever, but have a look at revealed preferences:
That is from LCH.Clearnet’s data depository of cleared interest-rate swaps and actually tells you nothing about what we’re talking about but it looks pretty. Read more »
It’s been a while since we checked in with the infinity thrillion dollars of Libor lawsuits, but the Journal has a good roundup today and, yeah, eep, this is sort of interesting:
Firms facing the biggest potential payouts, according to Morgan Stanley, based on the financial business they do rather than their assumed culpability, include Deutsche Bank AG, Royal Bank of Scotland PLC, Barclays, Bank of America and J.P. Morgan.
It seems almost unfair: you can very easily put a whole lot of leverage on your employees’ lame criminality; if you’re really really good at selling rate product even a tiny wee bit of criminality can be a disaster.* Shades of this chart – shouldn’t you get more points for being more criminal, not just for being bigger?
But this was the most jarring part:
Fund manager Charles Schwab has alleged it deserves damages related to billions of dollars in fixed-rate investments held by its funds, as well as investments with returns pegged directly to Libor. Schwab alleges in lawsuits it filed last year that the fixed rates were set in relation to Libor.
This is actually true; here is the Schwab complaint, which I’ve seen before but somehow didn’t register this: Read more »
Tim Geithner had a nice chat with Congress about Libor in a theoretically unrelated hearing today, and since Congressional hearings are mostly about restating everyone’s pre-existing prejudices I figured I’d lay out my Libor hobbyhorses:
- Nobody really has ever been all that troubled by the fact that banks manipulated Libor to make themselves look like they could borrow in 2007-2008, while everyone is at least acting all shocked shocked that banks manipulated Libor to juice derivatives profits, but that contrast is awkward because in a certain light those are the same activity, so everyone has to look all horrified by stuff they were obviously cool with four years ago.
- Everybody knew that banks understated Libor in 2007-2008. Like, you could compare Libor to market borrowing rates and CDS and stuff, and people did, and noticed it was wrong. Also remember that Barclays, while they were manipulating Libor, were also emailing all their clients every day to remind them that Libor was being manipulated.
- The effect/harm/liability of Libor manipulation has to be determined in expectation and if everyone knew it was being manipulated then they were presumably charging a higher spread to Libor when dealing with banks.
Geithner’s testimony won’t change my mind: now he has to look all grim about Libor manipulation, while back in the day he “treated it as a curiosity, or something akin to jaywalking, as opposed to highway robbery.”
But Tim Geithner wasn’t just a regulator when he ran the New York Fed; he was also a Libor user. So he gets to answer questions like this: Read more »
Deutsche Bank had two weird little bits of gun-jumping news today, one good(ish), one bad (just bad). The good news is that Deutsche Bank has decided that it wasn’t manipulating Libor too much:
A Deutsche Bank internal probe has found that two of its former traders may have been involved in colluding to manipulate global benchmark interest rates but there was no indication of failure at the top of the organization, three people close to the investigation said.
So … great? Those two Deutsche Bank traders can look forward to possible jail, but the buck stops with them: the board-appointed probe has exonerated the board. Ha ha ha you say, but why not? Jailable Libor manipulation by traders seems conceptually distinct from approved-by-the-Fed-and-BoE Libor manipulation for the perceived good of the financial system, and while the former is worse for the traders and submitters the latter might be worse for the top officers. At Barclays, at least, senior people were not intervening to pick up half a basis point here and there on swaps trades, but they were intervening to make themselves look pretty in the eyes of markets and Paul Tucker. And now they’re gone! At Deutsche, we don’t know what this report says, but there’s at least fake statistical evidence that DB didn’t systematically skew Libor one way or another, suggesting that the einzigen Badapfel* theory might be true, or true enough for the board not to fire itself, which is a lower bar.
The bad news is that DB announced today that it expects to announce crummy earnings next week, to the tune of EUR1.0bn/700mm of pre/after-tax net income in 2Q2012, down from 1.8/1.2bn in 2Q2011 and off ~30% from analyst estimates. This puzzled me not so much in earnings being down – what else is new, new normal, etc. – but in that we’re getting a sneak preview a week before earnings. Why do that? Read more »
We talked the other day about municipalities and the Libor shenanigans. Quick recap:
1) Municipalities wanted long-term fixed-rate debt.
2) They got it indirectly by selling long-term floating-rate debt and buying interest rate swaps from banks.
3) At first, this was cheaper than issuing fixed-rate debt.*
4) Later, though, sometimes it turned out to be more expensive than having issued fixed-rate debt, or at least more expensive than it should have been, because municipalities pay a floating rate based on weekly reset auctions of their debt and that rate tends to track an interest rate called the Sifma swap rate,** while they receive a floating rate based on a percentage of Libor, and in 2007-2008 those rates diverged in weird ways.
5) Specifically, banks messed with Libor.
6) You can imagine tons of derivatives counterparties who could get screwed without politicians getting that worked up about it, but poor beleaguered Nassau County is not one of them.
Anyway an informed reader wrote in with some comments, of which this was my favorite: Read more »
Maria Bartiromo: Tim Geithner apparently flagged the problem 5 years ago. Why didn’t he do more about this? He basically called the Bank of England and said he was worried about the approach in terms of Libor, that they needed to change it. Did he do enough?
Eliot Spitzer: Look I think it would be preemptory to say one way or the other. This is something that needs an awful lot of examination. I think the fact that he knew in ’07, sent a memo in ’08 is only the first layer of inquiry. Did he follow up on it? Libor, as everyone who watches CNBC knows, is the heart and soul, it is the blood stream of the financial system. If anyone is rigging it or playing games with it then you must follow up. Anybody who is in the regulatory position that Tim Geithner was in, in my view the most important bank regulatory position in the world, how do you not follow up and say wait a minute guys what have you done? So it’s unclear, and I hate to use this metaphor perhaps, but was this the sort of memo that was being sent at Penn State where you just kind of brush it aside or was it really an effort to do something?
MB: Oh god.
ES: This bears an awful lot of inquiry. Because it goes to the very real question of whether the NY Fed did not fulfill its fundamental function to ensure the soundest [and] security of the balance sheets of the banks all the way through the period leading up to the crisis. Is this one piece of evidence that runs contrary to that or one piece of evidence that supports it? We don’t know yet.
MB: What a comparison.
ES: Well let me tell you Maria, unfortunately when you see memos at the top being written like that, you never know, you have to ask the question, what preceded it, what came after it, otherwise you don’t understand the texture of what was being done by that senior person. Read more »
The Barclibor scandal waits for no man; the municipal borrowers have had their day in the sun and now we move on to the New York Fed’s disclosures about what it knew when. Short version: everything, immediately! Here is a thing that a Barclays trader told a NY Fed economist in April 2008 (omitting the economist’s “Mm hmm”s and “Yeah”s*):
[Barclays]: Dollar, Dollar LIBORs do not reflect where the market is trading which is you know the same as a lot of other people have said. Um, wha-, it depends on which part of the curve you’re looking at. Um, currently, we would say that in the three months, um, if we as a prime bank had to go in the interbank market and borrow cash, it’s probably eight to ten basis points above where LIBOR is fixing. If, if, if we had to go in the market and properly borrow money, it would be about eight to ten above and in the one year it would probably be about twenty basis points in the market.
[Fed]: And, and why do you think that there is this, this discrepancy? Is it because banks maybe they are not reporting what they should or is it um …
[Barclays]: Well, let’s, let’s put it like this and I’m gonna be really frank and honest with you.
[Fed]: No that’s why I am asking you [laugher] you know, yeah [inaudible] [laughter]
[Barclays]: You know, you know we, we went through a period where we were putting in where we really thought we would be able to borrow cash in the interbank market and it was above where everyone else was publishing rates. And the next thing we knew, there was um, an article in the Financial Times, charting our LIBOR contributions and comparing it with other banks and inferring that this meant that we had a problem raising cash in the interbank market. And um, our share price went down. So it’s never supposed to be the prerogative of a, a money market dealer to affect their company share value. And so we just fit in with the rest of the crowd, if you like. So, we know that we’re not posting um, an honest LIBOR. And yet and yet we are doing it, because, um, if we didn’t do it it draws, um, unwanted attention on ourselves.
I don’t know how to take the laughter at the Barclays trader’s promise to be honest with her. It’s not like they were being dishonest with anyone else (except BBA!). Here are things that Barclays’ money markets desk sent out in client commentary, copying the World Bank, ECB, and New York Fed: Read more »
There is a line forming to the left for people to beat up on Libor-manipulating banks, and it’s a long line so your beating time is limited and you have to make the most of it if you want anyone to care. Today’s the day for U.S. municipal borrowers. How’d they do?
The municipalities are important because they are the unusual case of a large class of politically sympathetic customers who would have been systematically disadvantaged by low Libor rates, as opposed to you and that mortgage that you won’t shut up about, on which Liborgate probably saved you money. Stephen Gandel nicely sums up the situation here: the problem was that, in astonishing droves, U.S. cities and counties borrowed at variable rates, paying their own idiosyncratic floating SIFMA rate, but they then swapped to fixed, receiving a floating rate based on Libor. This led to badness, as muni credit blew up and SIFMA spiked, while bank credit blew up and Libor mysteriously didn’t, because of the manipulating. So cities who had expected to pay a fixed 5% or whatever a year ended up paying 5% plus the suddenly widening gap between SIFMA and Libor.
Here is a graph I made you, comparing the SIFMA rate that munis paid to their bondholders versus a proxy for the Libor-based rate that they received from their banks*:
So that sort of looks okay outside of 2008, which looks sort of … not okay. Here is perhaps a more suggestive thing: Read more »
The Libor scandal presents a whole range of questions from the very micro “how much did I lose on my mortgage”* through the micro yet fantastically large “what kind of total damages are floating around in lawsuits” past the pseudo-philosophical “how can I ever trust the financial system again”** all the way up to the metaphysical “what is a price?” Somewhere in the middle realm there is a good set of questions of “what did regulators know and when did they know it and what did they do and why didn’t they do it?” The Times and Reuters get to those questions today and they’re unsurprisingly awkward.
The awkwardness starts with word choice. The verb “fix” is in market usage a bit of a contranym, in that “fixing” something, when that something is a price, can either solve or create a problem with it. No doubt the Fed regrets this meeting title:
In early 2008, questions about whether Libor reflected banks’ true borrowing costs became more public. The Bank for International Settlements published a paper raising the issue in March of that year, and an April 16 story in the Wall Street Journal cast doubts on whether banks were reporting accurate rates. Barclays said it met with Fed officials twice in March-April 2008 to discuss Libor.
According to the calendar of then New York Fed President, Timothy Geithner, who is now U.S. Treasury Secretary, it even held a “Fixing LIBOR” meeting between 2:30-3:00 pm on April 28, 2008. At least eight senior Fed staffers were invited.
“Let’s fix Libor,” said the Fed staffers, and so did a bunch of traders at Barclays, meaning … well, I was about to say meaning different things, but who knows? Reuters goes on: Read more »
It’s no surprise that more Liborneriness is coming to a bank near you; with Barclays and UBS already pretty much having admitted wide-ranging Libor manipulation and Deutsche Bank seeming to be next up for a roasting. Maybe some people will go to jail, and certainly some more banks will pay fines, but also certainly those fines will be very very very small compared to the potential lawsuits. Because there are eight hundred quazillion dollars of Libor-referencing contracts, and if you screwed them up then in some loose theoretical way you owe money to everyone who got screwed without having any offsetting claims against anyone who benefited.
Now the US legal system being what it is the lawsuits long preceded the evidence of manipulation and there’s a big mishegas of a Libor lawsuit that’s been going on for years in New York. This suit looks a little quaint now, being based on the theory that all the banks got together in a room, smoked cigars, rubbed their hands together, and agreed to lower Libor for some unspecified nefarious purpose. Now we know that they all worked against each other to lower and/or raise Libor for a variety of clearly specified nefarious purposes,* until the crisis hit and they all started working independently to lower Libor for clearly specified and maybe public-spirited purposes. And the banks will tell you that themselves, in their motion in the case filed last week:
Plaintiffs themselves cite as the primary motive for the alleged false reports a desire by Defendants to hide their supposed financial weakness from each other and the public, which would naturally call for circumspection by such banks, not discussion and agreement among them.
See? We would never work together to manipulate Libor – we’re too sneaky for that. We’d prefer to lie to each other, too. Read more »