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When You've Got A Global Financial Crisis To Worry About, A Few Trillion Dollars Of Fraud Don't Seem Like That Big A Deal

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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:

Also invited was James McAndrews, a Fed economist who published a report three months later that questioned whether Libor was manipulated.

"A problem of focusing on the Libor is that the banks in the Libor panel are suspected to under-report the borrowing costs during the period of recent credit crunch," said that report in July 2008 that examined whether a government liquidity facility was helping ease pressure in the interbank lending market.

Certainly, but read his paper, which examines the effectiveness of the Fed's Term Auction Facility - basically cheap funding for banks - through the lens of whether it lowered Libor rates.*** The syllogism here is implicit but pretty straightforward: (1) we want TAF to work, (2) TAF works by pushing down Libor, (3) we want to push down Libor. This is a more ... um ... market-driven? econometric? not obviously shady? ... version of the famous Tucker call: the central bank wanted to boost confidence in its regulated banks, it understood that that confidence is expressed in the form of Libor, so it wanted to reduce Libor. First-best would be to reduce Libor by increasing fundamental confidence in those banks. Second-best is left as an exercise for the reader.

That's not particularly a reason to believe that Tucker or the New York Fed or anyone else told banks to fake Libor. It's just that the evidence is pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty clear that they never told the banks to stop faking Libor:

“Some news reports indicate that although Barclays raised concerns multiple times with American and British authorities about discrepancies over how Libor was set, the bank was not told to stop the practice,” Representative Randy Neugebauer, a Texas Republican and the head of the House oversight panel, said ....

In one call with the Financial Services Authority, a Barclays manager acknowledged that the bank was understating its Libor submissions. “So, to the extent that, um, the Libors have been understated, are we guilty of being part of the pack? You could say we are,” the Barclays manager said, according to regulatory documents.

One reading of this is that the regulators weren't causing or encouraging the problem; they were just being careful about when they'd get around to solving it. ("In 2012," seems to be the answer.) And that would be understandable. It strikes me as meaningful that the compromised regulators here are not securities or commodities regulators - the SEC, the CFTC, the FSA - whose mandate is a fairly one-way "stop fraud" (and who are leading the charge on actually investigating Liborgate now). Instead they're central bankers, who have a dual role of bank regulation and macroeconomic stabilization. In many cases, the exact wrong time to fix a problem is in the middle of the crisis that reveals that problem. The TED spread ballooned in 2007-2008, both indicating and exacerbating the failure of confidence in the banks; pushing it up further - and chopping off bank CEO heads etc. - in the name of truth in pricing may reasonably have struck the BoE and the Fed as counterproductive.

Fixing Libor - I mean, fixing Libor - I mean, never mind - in 2007-2008 would be like raising capital requirements in 2007-2008: a good idea in general but a procyclical mess at the moment. I suppose its just a coincidence that Liborgate, the implementation of tougher capital requirements, and harsh-ish (ish) bank stress tests, are all spring/summer 2012 events, but it's a suggestive coincidence. The time for containing the damage of the last crisis is over; now it's time to prevent the next one.

Insight: Fed knew of Libor issue in 2007-08, proposed reforms [Reuters]
Bank Scandal Turns Spotlight to Regulators [DealBook]

* So the answer is obvs zero (or negative) but do consider the rational-expectations argument that it wasn't. This argument goes:

1. Your mortgage rate was floating and set at 3mL + X, for some X disclosed to you in your mortgage documents.

2. X was, in practice and unbeknownst to you, composed of X = Y + Z, where Y is a premium for your credit risk and Z is some premium charged by knowledgeable banks/markets for the expected understating of Libor - i.e. your rate was in effect 3mL' + Y, where 3mL' is "real" Libor, the real cost of borrowing for banks, and 3mL' = "stated" 3mL + Z.

3. If Z was greater than the actual forward misstating of Libor then Liborgate "cost you money" in some ex post sense. That might be the case if for instance you had a mortgage adjusting in the early 2000s and banks were actually overstating Libor to help their derivatives positions, or more systematically if you took out your mortgage in 2008 (and you didn't!), when Z was plausibly large, and it adjusts in 2012, when Z is plausibly going away what with the hearings and such.

This argument strikes me as slightly silly but not very silly. Thoughts? Implications?

** God, you can't, why did you before? Just shut up, at least you're not this guy:

“How on earth can a regulated entity can just make up the bank statements for three years?” asked James Koutoulas, the head of the Commodities Customer Coalition, a group of customers still fighting for the return of their missing money following the collapse of MF Global. “I don’t even know what to say – I’m so shocked that you can forge bank statement for years, and the regulator wouldn’t just check the account balance at the bank directly.” ...

Mr. Koutoulas, a hedge fund manager, said his firm held less than $3 million with PFGBest. Regulators said Monday that no one would be allowed to withdraw their money from the firm for the time being.

“How do you trust the financial industry,” asked a bewildered Mr. Koutoulas.

First investing tip in the Dealbreaker Investing Tips Newsletter: buy undefined the stock of any futures broker where James Koutoulas keeps his money.

*** A sample:

On December 12, 2007, The Federal Reserve responded to the continuing difficulty that banks faced in obtaining term funds by introducing the Term Auction Facility (TAF). The TAF provides term funding to eligible depository institutions in sound financial condition through periodic auctions. The total amount of the funds available at any TAF auction is announced in advance by the Federal Reserve, and the rate (known as the “stop-out rate”) is set in a competitive auction process among the participating depository institutions. Those depositories with the highest bid rates receive the funds at the stop-out rate. Through auctions, the Federal Reserve provides term funds to depositories who need it most, with the intention of alleviating the strains arising from the unwillingness of sound institutions to lend to each other. ...

Did the Term Auction Facility help in reducing the liquidity risk premium in the strained money markets? This paper investigates the effects of the TAF on the London inter-bank offered rate (LIBOR). The particular question investigated is whether the announcements and operations of the TAF program are associated with negatives shifts (or jumps) of the LIBOR. The existence of such association will provide one indication of the efficacy of the TAF in helping to relieve the strains in the money markets. The empirical evidence presented here suggests that the TAF has helped in easing the strained conditions in money markets.