Resolving the LIBOR corruption scandal
In order to work well, markets need a basic level of trust. As Alan Greenspan said, in 1999, “In virtually all transactions we rely on the word of those with whom we do business.” So what happens to a market in which the most fundamental assumptions turn out to be lies? That is the question in a scandal that has roiled the banking industry all summer.
The LIBOR (London Inter-bank Offered Rate) index is the most important set of numbers in the global financial system. Used as a benchmark for interest rates around the world, it’s assembled by asking a panel of big banks to estimate what it would cost them to borrow money today, if they had to. Hundreds of trillions of dollars in derivatives, corporate loans, and mortgages are pegged to these rates. Yet we now know that for years LIBOR rates were rigged. Barclays has agreed to pay nearly half a billion dollars to regulators for its manipulations, and a host of other big banks are under investigation for similar misdeeds.
Rigging LIBOR was shockingly easy. The estimates aren’t audited. They’re not compared with market prices. And LIBOR is put together by a trade group, without any real supervision from government regulators. In other words, manipulating LIBOR didn’t require any complicated financial hoodoo. The banks just had to tell some simple lies…
Daylife/Reuters Pictures used by permission
The most striking thing about this scandal is that it was predictable—the way LIBOR was designed practically invited corruption—yet no one did anything to stop it. That’s because, for decades, regulators and people in the financial industry assumed that banks’ desire to protect their reputations would keep them honest…But, if recent history has taught us anything, it’s that self-regulation doesn’t work in finance, and that worries about reputation are a weak deterrent to corporate malfeasance. To begin with, traders at a bank are typically rewarded according to how much money their trades make, not on whether they enhance the bank’s reputation. Bank C.E.O.s, meanwhile, are now paid so lavishly that even when they wreak havoc on a bank’s good name they can still walk away with immense amounts of money…
How do we rein them in? We could start by making it harder for the banks to game the system—LIBOR, for instance, should be revamped so that it reflects actual market rates, not self-serving guesses. Then we need to admit that fraud is a crime and throw some people in jail…That shouldn’t be too hard in the case of LIBOR, which involves no complicated debates about who knew what when. Bankers were asked a simple question, and they lied in response.
Most important, though, we need an attitudinal shift on the part of regulators, who need to recognize that their gentleman’s-club ethos is ill-suited to today’s financial world, and who need to be aggressive not just in punishing malfeasance but in preventing it from happening…This new approach would be intrusive and overbearing, and would make it harder for bankers to do what they want. In other words, it’s exactly what the financial industry needs.
Honesty is the best policy needs to be converted to “Honesty is the Only Policy Allowed”.