two more settlements and we’ll do a scatterplot

I assume that there’s someone somewhere whose job it is to think about this, but the big Libor fine that appears to be in UBS’s future got me wondering: how do they decide how big these fines are supposed to be? In most fraud cases you can tot up how much someone stole and use that as a starting point, inflating or deflating it for different levels of evil or remorse. But that doesn’t seem to be a promising avenue in Liborgate, where the money involved is hard to calculate and mostly flowed around the manipulating banks without touching them directly. The fine-setters seem to have about four things to think about:

  • how much bad stuff did the bank do,
  • how much money did they make doing it,
  • how caught are they, and
  • how sorry are they now.

On how much bad stuff … really the point of these settlements is that you’ll never quite know. The Barclays settlement documents contain tons of delightful emails, but they’re framed by the usual prosecutorial boasting that they are “just some examples of the numerous trader requests over the years in question.” They’re a sampling thrown in for scandalous effect, not a real accounting of Barclays’ rate manipulation. For the CFTC to actually publish every instance that it discovered of rate-fixing, in a settlement, would be silly. For one thing, the settlement is designed to avoid the necessity of doing the work to get such an accounting. For another, the settlement is designed to avoid the public release of such an accounting, which would be ammunition for the private lawsuits that have sprung up around Libor.

So we’re unlikely to get a real official read on whether UBS was worse than Barclays and by how much. But the fine is obviously a clue that they were pretty bad. From David Merkel’s data they actually seem to have been middle-of-the-pack as a Libor submitter, without the extreme submissions and big swings that Barclays had. But to be fair that is in 3-month USD and part of UBS’s thing seems to have been manipulating Libor in more tenors and currencies than Barclays did. Read more »