WASHINGTON "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money."
Never before has that line at one time credited to legendary Sen. Everett Dirksen been more apt for the big banks, thanks to yet another huge settlement for alleged wrongdoing. The combined $4 billion in fines and orders announced Wednesday against six banks over foreign-exchange pricing is just one in a parade of bad-news stories and only further harms industry resources and reputations.
On the face of it, the settlement amounts agreed to by four different regulators in three countries were a drop in the bucket compared to the institutions' sizes and the reach of the multibillion dollar FX market. (The six banks are Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, HSBC, The Royal Bank of Scotland and UBS.)
But with the fines for alleged FX price manipulation coming after other high-profile penalties stemming from the housing crisis as well as the London Interbank Offered Rate scandal, the dollars paid to regulators are piling up and the agencies have more rationale to crack down on management decisions, including compensation practices.
"When you have some of the biggest banks in the world involved in another scandal of this sort, it's harder to resist regulatory demands, including in the compensation area," said Henry T. C. Hu, a professor at the University of Texas law school.
Here are three key takeaways from the foreign-exchange settlements:
The governments' scrutiny of FX trading will likely continue.
The fines come after months of probes into alleged price manipulation and collusion by traders inside banks that, regulators say, institutions failed to detect for years. (The settlements were announced by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the United Kingdom-based Financial Conduct Authority and the lead Swiss bank regulator.)
The consent orders allege traders used chat rooms to coordinate trades that would affect key FX benchmark rates. Those benchmarks including the World Markets/Reuters Closing Spot Rates are set by taking a snapshot of transactions made within 60-second intervals during the trading day. Many traders were subsequently fired or suspended when the practices came to light.
Some observers say the amounts of the civil fines in the settlements paled in comparison to the effects of the alleged rigging, and that criminal action would have more bite.
"In the absence of criminal prosecution, it sends the signal that the risks of doing this sort of thing are so small that there is no incentive to avoid this kind of conduct," said Michael Greenberger, a law professor at the University of Maryland.
But observers note there is a perception that other banks have been probed by the regulators and could face consent orders in the near future.
"It would not surprise me if more banks are named later. There were roughly 30 people who lost their jobs, from more than these six banks," said Howard Tai, a senior analyst with Aite Group. "This was round one. We'll see where rounds two and three will lead."
Meanwhile, at least Citi and JPMorgan Chase have both disclosed they are the subjects of criminal probes by the Department of Justice over alleged FX price rigging. A year ago, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. speaking in an interview with the New York Times, said of the investigation, "The manipulation we've seen so far may just be the tip of the iceberg."
In a note Wednesday, Guggenheim Securities analyst Jaret Seiberg said investors should not "dismiss the risk of a criminal indictment."
"This is the type of bid rigging that the Justice Department's antitrust division has pursued in the past. We believe criminal charges against the traders are likely. The issue on whether the banks will be indicted will center on how aware management was of the price manipulations," Seiberg wrote. "To us, criminal charges seem likely given the duration of the alleged crime and the compliance systems that were supposed to be in place."
The scandal will have lasting effects on structures for pricing currencies and other assets.
But the impact of the foreign-exchange scandal may not be limited to the government crackdown.
Experts say the allegations of price manipulation undermine not only the credibility of key benchmark rates for foreign-exchange trading but also those set for other types of assets as well. There were similar doubts following the scandal over alleged Libor rigging.
"When you look at all the different indices that are out there, one after another we are finding out that they were manipulated, to the advantage of the banks," Greenberger said. "This is part of a pattern and practice."
Tai said both the foreign-exchange and Libor scandals have sparked questions over whether the short time window used to establish benchmark rates is sufficient.
"It's another wake-up call after the Libor manipulation" and other price-fixing scandals "for asset classes that rely on a single-point-in-time price as the benchmark," he said. "It's why traders of a variety of different asset classes are trying to figure out a new way to come up with daily benchmark setting process for mark-to-market prices."
The fines only magnify the growing focus on banks' culture.
Perhaps the most stinging effect on the industry is how the scandal one in a line of reputational troubles may intensify regulators' attention to the area of banks' management cultures.
Regulators have made an issue lately out of how the tone set by bank leadership could be a bigger factor in setting an institution up for problems than bad decisions.
Hu noted that regulators' recent scrutiny of risk culture has largely focused on safety and soundness issues.
"The FX scandal emphasizes yet again the importance of bank internal controls. Here, however, the central public policy concern relates to market prices, not the safety and soundness of individual banks," he said. "Also, the FX and Libor scandals suggest the importance of internal controls not only in respect of exotic derivatives and strategies but also in far more pedestrian activities.
"This new scandal gives regulators even more reason and leverage to emphasize careful consideration of incentive-based compensation matters."