You might have missed the latest bank scandal, the one involving Barclays Plc (BARC), in the hubbub of last week’s U.S. health-care ruling and euro salvage plan.
If so, allow us to fill you in: On June 27, Barclays, the U.K.’s second-largest bank by assets, admitted it deliberately reported artificial borrowing costs from 2005 to 2009. The false reports were used to set a benchmark rate, the London interbank offered rate, or Libor, which affects the value of trillions of dollars of derivatives contracts, mortgages and consumer loans. The bank agreed to pay a hefty $455 million to settle charges with U.S. and U.K. regulators, and on Monday its chairman resigned.
Earlier today, Robert Diamond resigned as chief executive officer. Marcus Agius, who yesterday said he would resign as chairman, reversed his decision after Diamond quit and will stay on to lead the search for a new CEO. In an apology to employees before he stepped down, Diamond wrote that some of the misconduct occurred on his watch, when he was head of Barclays Capital, the investment-banking unit. Diamond was already in the doghouse with investors. In April, 27 percent of shareholders, upset that Barclays had missed profit targets, voted down his $19.5 million pay package.
Heads should roll at other banks, too. Regulators and criminal prosecutors, including the U.S. Justice Department, are investigating at least a dozen other firms to determine whether they colluded to rig the rate. Among them: Citigroup Inc., Deutsche Bank AG, HSBC Holdings Plc and UBS AG.
We don’t countenance bank bashing. Nor have we ever called on regulators to bust up big banks. But it’s difficult to defend an industry that defrauds the market with fake interest-rate figures, thereby stealing from other banks and customers.
Sadly, the Libor case reveals something rotten in today’s banking culture. We hope the investigations expose the bad actors, lead to jail terms for those who knowingly manipulated the market, and force out the senior managers and board directors who participated in, or overlooked, such conduct.
Why so exercised? In the Barclays settlement documents, regulators released smoking-gun e-mails that reveal the extent of the dirty dealing between bank traders (looking to protect profits and bonuses) and senior officials in bank treasury units (hoping to convince markets that their banks weren’t in financial difficulty). The two aren’t supposed to collude, but it’s obvious that the Chinese walls between them come with ladders.
Libor and its euro counterpart, the Euribor, are benchmark rates determined by bank estimates of how much it would cost them to borrow from one another, in different timeframes and currencies. The banks submit sheets of numbers every weekday morning, London time. An adjusted average of the rates determines the size of payments on mortgages and corporate loans worldwide. The rates also serve as an indicator of the health of the banking system. Because some submissions aren’t based on real trades, the potential exists for manipulation.
A Barclays banker responsible for reporting borrowing rates was told to make the bank look healthier by not revealing that borrowing costs had risen. An e-mail he wrote to a supervisor confirms that he complied: “I will reluctantly, gradually and artificially get my libors in line with the rest of the contributors as requested,” he wrote. “I will be contributing rates which are nowhere near the clearing rates for unsecured cash and therefore will not be posting honest prices,” he continued, referring to rates in the overnight money market.
At times, Barclays traders sought to affect rates on dates when interest-rate derivatives contracts settled, thus profiting more from trades, according to documents made public by the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, one of the agencies conducting the Libor probes. Here’s an e-mail about the three- month rate from a senior Barclays trader in New Yorkto the London banker who submitted the rates: “Hi Guys, We got a big position in 3m libor for the next 3 days. Can we please keep the lib or fixing at 5.39 for the next few days. It would really help. We do not want it to fix any higher than that. Tks a lot.”
Bankers submitting rates responded to such requests as if they were routine: “For you, anything,” and “done … for you big boy,” according to the e-mails. Not that the efforts went unappreciated: “Dude. I owe you big time!” one trader wrote to a Libor submitter. “Come over one day after work and I’m opening a bottle of Bollinger.”
Barclays traders also coordinated with counterparts from other banks. In an instant message, one Barclays trader wrote to a trader at another bank: “If you know how to keep a secret I’ll bring you in on it, we’re going to push the cash downwards. … I know my treasury’s firepower … please keep it to yourself otherwise it won’t work.”
The Libor system, overseen by the British Bankers Association, operates much the way it did in the 1980s. Even after the news media uncovered evidence of manipulation in 2008, the bank lobby did little to reduce conflicts or improve the veracity of its numbers. The best solution, as Bloomberg View has advocated, is to end Libor and create a benchmark using data from actual loans, rather than relying on banks to tell the truth about their borrowing costs.
The real tragedy of the scandal is the apparent lack of ethics or self-restraint among the people involved. Following billions of dollars of trading losses at JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s out-of-control London unit, the latest installment of big-bank follies offers yet more proof that the industry shouldn’t be trusted to regulate itself.
The metal, which traded at $1,666.30 an ounce at 2:43 p.m. in London, may decline to as low as $1,475, the economist wrote today in his Suffolk, Virginia-based Gartman Letter. He sold the last of his gold yesterday. Bullion has already dropped 13 percent from the record $1,921.15 reached Sept. 6 and $1,475 would extend that to more than 20 percent, the common definition of a bear market.
“Since the early autumn here in the Northern Hemisphere gold has failed to make a new high,” Gartman wrote. “Each high has been progressively lower than the previous high, and now we’ve confirmation that the new interim low is lower than the previous low. We have the beginnings of a real bear market, and the death of a bull.”
The metal typically moves inversely to the dollar, which today reached a two-month high against the euro after Fitch Ratings and Moody’s Investors Service said yesterday that a European Union summit last week offered little help in ending the region’s debt crisis. Bullion is still 17 percent higher this year and holdings in gold-backed exchange-traded products are at a record, a hoard now valued at $126.5 billion.
Gold’s 2011 Gain
Gold’s performance this year compares with a 2.8 percent advance in the Standard & Poor’s GSCI gauge of 24 commodities, in which it is the third-best performer behind gasoil and cattle. The MSCI All-Country World Index of equities retreated 9.8 percent and Treasuries returned 9.2 percent, a Bank of America Corp. index shows.
The slump in equities spurred some investors to sell their gold to cover losses. Open interest, or contracts outstanding, in gold futures traded on the Comex exchange in New York, fell to 427,756 contracts, from 546,601 in July, bourse data show.
“So much damage has been done to the psychology of the market in the past week and so many late longs have been caught off guard that we think wholesale liquidation, and perhaps forced liquidation, shall be the outcome,” Gartman wrote.
ETP investors are increasingly bullish. Holdings in the products climbed 3.8 metric tons to an all-time high of 2,360.5 tons yesterday, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That’s equal to more than 10 months of global mine supply and greater than the reserves of all but four of the world’s central banks, which are expanding holdings for the first time in a generation.
Hedge funds and other money managers boosted bets on higher futures prices for the first time in three weeks. Net-long positions in gold futures and options rose by 3.5 percent to 151,347 contracts in the week ended Dec. 6, U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission data show. That’s still down 40 percent since the beginning of August, when positions were at the highest level since at least June 2006, the data show.
While the drop below $1,670 spurred more physical buying from India and South East Asia, the demand increase is from “relatively low” levels, Standard Bank Plc wrote today in a report. UBS AG said its physical flows to India yesterday were “well above” average and the most since Oct. 20.
“This pullback finally encouraged a response from the physical community,” Edel Tully, an analyst at UBS in London, wrote in a report. “Market participants are placing a lot of importance on physical buyers to step in and put a floor under gold. The physical response seen this week, though not yet enough to call a trend, should somewhat calm these investors.”
In China, the second-largest consumer, gold imports to the mainland from Hong Kong surged 51 percent to 86.3 tons in October to a monthly record, according to the Census and Statistics Department of the Hong Kong government. China imported more than 300 tons for all of 2010, Yi Gang, People’s Bank of China Vice Governor, said in February.
“Buying of that sort should have sent gold prices soaring,” Gartman wrote. “One of the oldest rules of trading is simply this: a market that cannot or does not respond to bullish news is a bearish market not a bullish one.”
The S&P GSCI Index of 24 commodities plunged as much as 66 percent in the seven months through February 2009 after Gartman in June 2008 said there would be a “tidal wave” of selling. The economist said Aug. 23 that gold was entering the stage when prices go “parabolic,” two weeks before the metal peaked at its record high.
Goldman Sachs & Co., a unit of the most profitable bank in Wall Street history, took $15 billion from the U.S. Federal Reserve on Dec. 9, 2008, the biggest single loan from a lending program whose details have been secret until today.
The program, which peaked at $80 billion in loans outstanding, was known as the Fed’s single-tranche open-market operations, or ST OMO. It made 28-day loans to units of 19 banks between March 7, 2008, and Dec. 30, 2008. Bloomberg reported on ST OMO in May, after the Fed released incomplete records on the program. In response to a subsequent Freedom of Information Act request for details, the central bank disclosed borrower names, amounts borrowed and interest rates.
ST OMO is the last known Fed crisis lending program to have its details made public. The central bank resisted previous FOIA requests on emergency lending for more than two years, disclosing details in March of its oldest loan facility, the discount window, only after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it had to. When Congress mandated the December 2010 release of data on special initiatives the Fed created in its unprecedented $3.5 trillion response to the 2007-2009 collapse in credit markets, ST OMO — an expansion of a longstanding program — wasn’t included.
“The Fed has come a long way over a long period of time as far as transparency,” said Raymond W. Stone, managing director and economist with Stone & McCarthy Research Associates in Princeton, New Jersey. “They thought counterparties might be harmed, but now so much time has passed that the information is not as sensitive anymore.”
The 19 borrowers from the program are known as primary dealers, which are designated to trade government securities directly with Federal Reserve Bank of New York. They bid at auctions for ST OMO’s cash. While the rates they paid generally tracked the federal funds rate, the rate for some dipped as low as 0.01 percent in December 2008.
The New York Fed conducted 44 ST OMO auctions, according to its website. Banks bid the interest rate they were willing to pay for the loans and pledged mortgage-backed securities guaranteed by government-sponsored enterprises such as Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac as collateral for the Fed’s cash. The transactions were known as repurchase agreements, or repos.
ST OMO was an expansion of longstanding open-market operations, which offered cash for up to two weeks and were used as a tool of monetary policy. In March 2008, the Fed adapted the program to alleviate pressures in short-term credit markets, according to a news release the central bank issued at the time.
The program shouldn’t be grouped with the Fed’s other crisis lending initiatives because it was “not outside of the Fed’s standard authorities,” David E. Altig, senior vice president and director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, said in his blog in May.
The New York Fed posted aggregate data about the program on its website after each auction, said Jeffrey Smith, a New York Fed spokesman. By increasing the availability of short-term financing when private lenders were under pressure, “this program helped alleviate strains in financial markets and support the flow of credit to U.S. households and businesses,” he said. All of the ST OMO loans were repaid.
Some primary dealers used the program to help customers, such as hedge funds, finance their holdings of mortgage-backed securities, Stone said.
“The Fed didn’t want to just finance the primary dealers, they wanted the mortgage-backed securities market to become more fluid,” Stone said.
Credit Suisse Securities USA LLC, a unit of Switzerland’s second-biggest bank, had $45 billion in loans outstanding on Aug. 27, 2008 — the largest peak borrowing amount, the data show.
“Credit Suisse was a net creditor throughout the crisis and made between $30 and $70 billion of liquidity available to central banks each day,” said Victoria Harmon, a spokeswoman for the bank in New York.
Six of the program’s top seven borrowers were units of foreign banks, the data show.
Goldman Sachs’s peak outstanding loans were the second- highest at $34.5 billion on Dec. 31, 2008, when interest rates were at their lowest, according to the data. Michael DuVally, a spokesman for New York-based Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS), the parent company of the primary dealer, declined to comment.
Lehman Brothers Inc. had two loans totaling $2 billion outstanding when its parent investment bank filed the biggest bankruptcy in U.S. history on Sept. 15, 2008, the data show. Those loans were repaid on Sept. 18, 2008, under a separate agreement, the Fed’s release said. Lehman’s peak borrowings from ST OMO reached $18 billion on June 25, 2008, according to the data.
Kimberly Macleod, a Lehman spokeswoman, didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
RBS Securities Inc., a unit of Britain’s second-biggest bank by market capitalization, had $31.5 billion in loans outstanding on Oct. 8, 2008, and UBS Securities LLC, part of Switzerland’s biggest bank, borrowed as much as $20.5 billion on Nov. 26, 2008, the Fed said.
Among the smallest loans was one to Bear Stearns & Co., the primary-dealer unit of Bear Stearns Cos. The primary dealer took one loan from ST OMO for $500 million, on March 12, 2008, according to the release. JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) bought the New York-based investment bank four days later. The loan was repaid on April 9, 2008, the data show.
The information on ST OMO is available on the central bank’s Web site: http://www.federalreserve.gov/monetarypolicy/bst_tranche.htm