BANKTHINK

Libor Scandal Undermines Bankers' Claims of Overregulation

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"Save me from these evil deeds before I get them done." – Fiona Apple

The Libor fixing scandal is really not a very entertaining story. It's a boring scandal. There's no evil masterminds, no clandestine operations. Calling it a sham would give real sham a bad name. Fixing the Libor is as simple as nudging the golf ball closer to the hole. It comes down to this: Libor rates are what I say they are.

The traders who were fixing the Libor didn't think they were doing something wrong. Everyone else was doing it, so why should they be any different?  They don't even have to be scheming bad guys for participating in the fixing. There was simply no coherent alternative mechanism to report those rates independently. The little tweak here and there, in the grand scheme of things, wouldn't do much damage. The reward is personal and immediate. The loss is borne by many customers who won't even notice that they have been shortchanged. I mean, what are the benefits of blowing the whistle? Whom are you going to complain to – the Fed? The SEC? Nobody wants to be a martyr, especially for such an obscure and unsexy, to an average observer, matter. If there's no upside in exposing the weakness of the system to the feds, one will find an upside in exploiting these same weaknesses to his advantage. And try to explain to the general public why they should care about a few corporate investors being scammed of a few basis points on their investments. It's not like selling toxic securities to unsuspecting customers.

The more interesting angle here is how this sort of "enchantment" has spread to the regulatory quarters. After all it's hard to blame bankers for this sort of behavior – that's what bankers do. They are in business to exploit every opportunity to make money.

The emerging story now is that the Fed and Bank of England might have known about the fixings. What was the Fed's reason not to have done anything? The Fed was acting like a parent of a misbehaving child on the plane, careful not to take any drastic measures to rein him in and subject everyone to even more annoying cries. Sure, the parent has powers to discipline but enforcement would create noise and annoy those disapproving passengers even more, so the Fed would rather keep the whole thing as is. The child, of course, is perfectly aware of this kind of dynamics and is exploiting it with impunity.

Wall Street is gleeful every time the public focus shifts onto regulators.  You know, we weren't policed like we were supposed to, what did you expect us to do – follow the rules unsupervised? It's reminiscent of last summer's British hacking scandal where the Rupert Murdoch-controlled media defended the actions of those involved in the hacking along these lines: "Sure there were some misdeeds, but look at the police! Why didn't they police us? How could they let us do this?" There was nobody there to "save me from these evil deeds." Got it? Now leave us alone, if you can't even enforce your own rules.

That's a tactical mistake. The fact that regulators have tacitly approved or simply decided not to intervene into business as usual does not let bankers off the hook. In fact it kills one of their major arguments about regulations being too aggressive. As soon as the public sees that regulators didn't do their job, it becomes harder to convince us of the Wall Street-peddled notion that regulations are an impediment to a normal flow of business.  Bankers can't have it both ways: they either suffer from too much regulation in which case they admit that regulators actually have some pull; or they proceed to do their business because regulators are too weak, in which case their complaints about regulatory hurdles and heavy government oversight that harms business are simple disingenuous posturing. You can't claim to be a victim of watchdogs and at the same time blame watchdogs for being dumb, inept and disorganized.

The scandal affects trillions of dollars of investments that are reliant on the Libor rate, but the headlines of wrongdoing on Wall Street fail to shock at this juncture. This is business as usual. This is also the beauty of a Wall Street crime. If a wrongdoing occurs, the bosses blame the subordinates, the subordinates blame the bosses and the corporate lawyers find a technicality that absolves all parties.

This time, however, the victims of this scandal are not just the average Joe Schmos who lost money on their mortgage, but major financial institutions and municipalities who invested in Libor-linked securities. If regulators, lawmakers and ordinary citizens can't police the banks, then those institutional investors are our last recourse. I wonder if some of them can find the will to engage with Wall Street in the same manner as Nicky Santoro engaged Charlie the Banker in Martin Scorsese's Casino

You think they'll get the point?

Katya Grishakova left the financial industry after spending more than a decade at various Wall Street firms. She is now a member of the alternative banking subgroup of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

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Comments (18)
One might think that all but the most ardent banking industry sycophants would have gotten the message that the lack of regulatory rigor paved the way for the Financial Crisis of 2008. So it boggles the mind that the greedy, mega-banks that forced the government to prove that they were Too Big To Fail, are still allowed to opine on the regulatory reform legislation that was prompted by their nefarious activities. I'm not sure what action is more deplorable -- the continuing dishonest dealings of "banksters" who are repeatedly saved from suffering the consequences of their actions, or the disingenuous comments of federal financial regulators who promise tough supervision of mega-banks, yet fail to hold senior management accountable for their misdeeds. The old saying that fish rot from their heads is as applicable to regulatory agencies as it is to big banks.
Posted by jim_wells | Thursday, July 19 2012 at 11:00AM ET
Yes. It is unfortunate. That's why I find all the complaints of too much regulations disingenuous.
Posted by Katya G | Thursday, July 19 2012 at 11:05AM ET
Current experience indicates that there is no such thing as Too Much Regulation for the Too Big To Behave Banks. But, this requires federal financial regulators that understand they cannot ham-handedly apply the same degree of regulatory compliance to smaller banks. It's hard to believe that federal regulators are incapable of differentiating between the level of regulatory rigor required with the top 20 banks in the country and the remaining 7,000-odd banks. Even harder to believe this could be accidental.
Posted by jim_wells | Thursday, July 19 2012 at 12:46PM ET
Perhaps it comes down to this: regulators regulate what they can understand. And small banks' business is simple - take deposits and make loans. As soon as the matter becomes slightly more complicated they have neither capacity nor will to do their job. For this reason, and as much as I support Volcker Rule, I think that simpler approach, like stricter capital requirements for instance, would be a good start at this point.
Posted by Katya G | Thursday, July 19 2012 at 12:57PM ET
Recall the Fed - Bernanke in particular - were responsible both for the credit and housing bubble and defended housing policy as late as 2006, also arguing there was no bubble. Then in 2007 and 2008 they denied there was any solvency crisis and treated the whole thing as a liquidity crisis. As John Taylor Getting Off Track, 2009 argued, the rising Libor spread proved the Fed wrong, that the counterparty risk reflected solvency concerns, which is why Fed policy didn't work. So the Fed wanted the Libor spread to be under-reported. The fed usually gets what it wants.
Posted by kvillani | Thursday, July 19 2012 at 3:02PM ET
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