Two different types of manipulation took place. In 2008, during the heat of the global crash, banks artificially submitted low rates in order to present an image of financial soundness to the markets. But at other times over the course of years, individual traders schemed to move rates up or down in order to profit on individual trades.
There is nobody anywhere growing weed strong enough to help the human mind grasp the enormity of this crime. It's a conspiracy so massive that the lawyers who are suing the banks are having an extremely difficult time figuring out how to calculate the damage.
Here's how it works: Every morning, 16 of the world's largest banks submit numbers to a Londonbased panel indicating what interest rates they're charging other banks to borrow money and what they themselves are charged. The LIBOR panel then takes those 16 different interest rates, tosses out the four highest and the four lowest, and averages out the remaining eight to create that day's LIBOR rates – the basis for interest rates almost everywhere in the world.
The fact that the LIBOR panel tosses out the four highest and lowest numbers every day is an important detail, because it means that it is difficult to artificially influence the final rate unless multiple banks are conspiring with each other. One bank lying its ass off and reporting that banks are lending money to each other basically for free doesn't move the needle much. To really be sure you're creating an artificially low or high interest rate, you need a bunch of banks on board – and it turns out that they were.
For perhaps as far back as 20 years, banks have been submitting phony numbers, often in concert with other banks. They did it for a variety of reasons, but the big one, typically, is that a bank trader is holding some investment tied to LIBOR – bundles of currencies, municipal bonds, mortgages, whatever – that would earn more money if the interest rate was lower. So what would happen is, some schmuck trader at Bank X would call the LIBOR submitter and offer him cash, booze, a blow job or just a pat on the back to get him to submit a fake number that day.
The scandal first blew up last year when the British megabank Barclays admitted to its part in the fixing of LIBOR rates. British regulators released a cache of disgusting e-mails showing traders from many different banks cheerfully monkeying around with your credit-card bills, your mortgage rates, your tax bill, your IRA account, etc., so that they could make out better on some sordid trade they had on that day. In one case, a trader from an unnamed bank sent an e-mail to a Barclays trader thanking him for helping to fix interest rates and promising a kickass bottle of bubbly for his efforts:
"Dude. I owe you big time! Come over one day after work, and I'm opening a bottle of Bollinger."
UBS was the next bank to confess, and its settlement – $1.5 billion in fines – was much the same, only the e-mails released were, if anything, more disgusting and damning. The British Financial Services Authority – equivalent to our SEC – discovered thousands of requests to fudge rates over a period of years involving dozens of different individuals and multiple banks. In many cases, the misdeeds were committed more or less openly, in writing, with traders and brokers baldly offering bribes in texts and e-mails with an obvious unconcern for punishment that later, sadly, proved justified.
"I will fucking do one humongous deal with you," begged one UBS trader who wanted a broker to fix the rate. "I'll pay, you know, $50,000, $100,000."
British regulators aren't hiding the size of the scandal. The UBS settlement demonstrated, without a doubt, that the LIBOR scandal involved more than just one or two banks, and probably involved hundreds of people at many of the world's largest and most prestigious financial institutions – in other words, a truly epic case of anti-competitive collusion that called into question whether the world's biggest banks are innovating a new, not-entirely capitalist form of high finance. "We have said there are five further institutions under investigation," says Christopher Hamilton of the FSA. "And there is a large number of individuals as well." (At press time, another bank, the Royal Bank of Scotland, also settled for LIBOR-related offenses.)
This dovetailed with what Bob Diamond, the former head of Barclays, told the British Parliament the day after he stepped down last year. "There is an industrywide problem coming out now," he said. Michael Hausfeld, a famed class-action lawyer who is suing the banks over LIBOR on behalf of cities like Baltimore whose investments lost money when interest rates were lowered, says the public still hasn't grasped the importance of comments like Diamond's. "Diamond essentially said, 'This is an industrywide problem,'" Hausfeld says. "But nobody has defined what this is yet."
Hausfeld's point – that Diamond's "industrywide problem" might be more than just a few guys messing with rates; it could be a systemic effort to pervert capitalism itself – underscores the extreme miscalculation of both recent no-prosecution deals.
At HSBC, the bank did more than avert its eyes to a few shady transactions. It repeatedly defied government orders as it made a conscious, years-long effort to completely stop discriminating between illegitimate and legitimate money. And when it somehow talked the U.S. government into crafting a settlement over these offenses with the lunatic aim of preserving the bank's license, it succeeded, finally, in making crime mainstream.
UBS, meanwhile, was a similarly elemental case, in which the offenses didn't just violate the letter of the law – they threatened the integrity of the competitive system. If you're going to let hundreds of boozed-up bankers spend every morning sending goofball e-mails to each other, giving each other superhero nicknames while they rigged the cost of money (spelling-challenged UBS traders dubbed themselves, among other things, "captain caos," the "three muscateers" and "Superman"), you might as well give up on capitalism entirely and just declare the 16 biggest banks in the world the International Bureau of Prices.
Thus, in the space of just a few weeks, regulators in Britain and America teamed up to declare near-total surrender to both crime and monopoly. This was more than a couple of cases of letting rich guys walk. These were major policy decisions that will reverberate for the next generation.
Even worse than the actual settlements was the explanation Breuer offered for them. "In the world today of large institutions, where much of the financial world is based on confidence," he said, "a right resolution is to ensure that counter-parties don't flee an institution, that jobs are not lost, that there's not some world economic event that's disproportionate to the resolution we want."
In other words, Breuer is saying the banks have us by the balls, that the social cost of putting their executives in jail might end up being larger than the cost of letting them get away with, well, anything.
This is bullshit, and exactly the opposite of the truth, but it's what our current government believes. From JonBenet to O.J. to Robert Blake, Americans have long understood that the rich get good lawyers and get off, while the poor suck eggs and do time. But this is something different. This is the government admitting to being afraid to prosecute the very powerful – something it never did even in the heydays of Al Capone or Pablo Escobar, something it didn't do even with Richard Nixon. And when you admit that some people are too important to prosecute, it's just a few short steps to the obvious corollary – that everybody else is unimportant enough to jail.
An arrestable class and an unarrestable class. We always suspected it, now it's admitted. So what do we do?
This story is from the February 28th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.
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