Libor’s Dirty Laundry
By Joe Nocera
Here in the early stages of the Libor scandal — and, yes, this thing is far from over — there are two big surprises. The first is that the bankers, traders, executives and others involved would so openly and, in some cases, gleefully collude to manipulate this key interest rate for their own benefit. With all the seedy bank behavior that has been exposed since the financial crisis, it’s stunning that there’s still dirty laundry left to be aired. We’ve had predatory subprime lending, fraudulent ratings, excessive risk-taking and even clients being taken advantage of in order to unload toxic mortgages. Yet even with these precedents, the Libor scandal still manages to shock. Libor — that’s the London interbank offered rate — represents a series of interest rates at which banks make unsecured loans to each other. More important, it is a benchmark that many financial instruments are pegged to. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which doggedly pursued the wrongdoing and brought the scandal to light, estimates that some $350 trillion worth of derivatives and $10 trillion worth of loans are based on Libor. “Why has the scandal created outrage in Britain? Because it truly is outrageous,” said Karen Petrou, the managing partner of Federal Financial Analytics. “They weren’t supposed to be fixing that rate — no matter what the reason.” She continued: “If I give you my money, I need to be able to trust you with it. If you can only be trusted via regulation, then you might as well be a utility. And if banks can’t be trusted to manage their trading desks, then we need to rethink our whole model of banking.” Petrou is not an advocate of returning to the days of Glass-Steagall, the Depression-era law that separated investment banking and commercial banking. But with the Libor scandal, she said, she could certainly understand the growing calls for it.