I admit that though I had been tangentially following the LIBOR scandal in Great Britain, I hadn’t really paid very close attention to it – until today. For those of you who don’t know what LIBOR is, LIBOR stands for the London Interbank Offered Rate, which is the average interest rate estimated by leading banks in London that they would be charged if borrowing from other banks.
Writing for Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi has an excellent article outlining why we here in the U.S. should be absolutely worried about the LIBOR scandal.
The furor is over revelations that Barclays, the Royal Bank of Scotland, and other banks were monkeying with at least $10 trillion in loans (The Wall Street Journal is calculating that that LIBOR affects $800 trillion worth of contracts).
The banks gamed LIBOR for two semi-overlapping reasons. As noted here last week, there were instances of Barclays traders badgering the LIBOR submitters to “push down” rates in order to fatten their immediate bottom lines, depending on what they were trading or holding that day. They also apparently rigged LIBOR downward in order to produce a general appearance of better health, essentially tweaking their credit scores a few ticks upward.
Most intriguingly, or perhaps disturbingly, there were revelations last week that Bank of England deputy Governor Paul Tucker had a conversation with Diamond at the peak of the crisis in 2008. The conversation reportedly left Diamond, and subsequently his traders, with the impression that the bank had carte blanche to rig LIBOR downward in order to help allay spiraling public fears about the banks’ poor financial health.
British officials, and Tucker individually, deny that Tucker gave Diamond permission to rig rates. But a report by British regulators did conclude that the two were talking about Barclays LIBOR submissions on October 29, 2008, and that as a result of that conversation, Diamond came away with a “misunderstanding.”
Taibbi goes on to note why Americans should be particularly worried about the revelations that regulators with the British government actually met with bankers and discussed LIBOR submissions.
The implications of that part of the story should be particularly chilling to Americans, who in recent years have been party to a number of revelations about strange and seemingly inappropriate contacts between senior regulatory officials and big bankers during the heat of the crisis.
We know that American officials in 2008-2009 were extremely concerned about the appearance of weakness in the financial markets, so much so that they may have resisted pursuing criminal prosecutions against big banks, and we also know that they spent a lot of time commiserating with Wall Street figures before and during the crisis.
If Bob Diamond and Paul Tucker were having these talks about LIBOR, is it fair to wonder what else Hank Paulson and Lloyd Blankfein were talking about in the 24 discussions they had in the six days following the AIG disaster? When Paulson had a secret meeting with the entire board of Goldman Sachs in, of all places, his hotel suite in Moscow, in June of 2008? Or what other material nonpublic information was exchanged when Paulson met with a gang of hedge fund chiefs at the offices of Eton Park management in July 2008, and laid out for them a possible scenario for putting Fannie and Freddie into receivership?
Here’s a video that explains more about what LIBOR is.