Barclays is being punished for being first, not worst

Barclays came clean while others are still hiding manipulation.

One thing that has come through in Barclays' counter-offensive over Libor-fixing is that it genuinely believes that what it was doing, if not actually ethical, was at least no worse than that which every other bank was doing.

In its submission to parliament, it writes of itself that:

The bank’s exceptional level of cooperation was expressly recorded by each of the Authorities, and was described by the DoJ as "extraordinary and extensive, in terms of the quality and types of information provided" and "the nature and value of Barclays cooperation has exceeded what other entities have provided in the course of this investigation." That cooperation has led to Barclays being the first to reach resolution of these issues. It ironic that there has been such an intense focus on Barclays alone, caused by our being first to settle in the midst of an industry-wide, global investigation.

Similarly, in Bob Diamond's record of his phone call with the Bank of England's Paul Tucker, we learn (as well as the fact that Diamond goes by RED, for Robert Edward Diamond, in internal memos) that Barclays genuninely believed the reality of Libor was that:

Not all banks were providing quotes at levels that represented real transactions.

This belief – that other banks have been manipulating Libor as well – is not some desperate attempt by Barclays to divert attention. We already know that RBS had to fire at least four, and possibly as many as ten, traders over Libor manipulation, and it seems likely that many other banks were doing the same thing. Indeed, if Barclays are to be believed, the only reason the call with Tucker happened at all was because they were manipulating Libor less than the other banks. This chart, via Reuter's Jamie McGreever, shows Barclay's spread over the Libor rate:

Notice the spike in Barclays' borrowing costs in September 2008, settling down almost entirely by December of that year. The Bank of England apparently thought that was because the market considered Barclays to be riskier than most banks; Barclays believed it to be because the other banks were lying more than it was. (The answer, of course, is likely somewhere in the middle.)

It may still be true that Barclays was qualitatively worse. There is no hint – yet – that the lies from RBS went any higher than trader level, whereas Barclays' Chief Operating Officer resigned yesterday as it became apparent that he may have directly ordered subordinates to under-report Libor rates, based on a mis-understanding of Tucker's phone call.

But it is undoubtedly the case that the reason Barclays is getting the most trouble – the reason why all subsequent investigation has focused on them, and they have had two waves of high-profile resignations – is because they were the first to be fingered. And they were only first because they held their hands up and admitted culpability. The authorities are, after all, still investigating other banks.

It may well turn out that what Barclays was doing was in no way unique. Now, if that results in the CEOs of all major banks being hounded out and potentially prosecuted for their actions in the run-up and immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, then it's been a long time coming. But it seems far more likely that what will happen is that by the third or fourth bank, the excuse that "everyone was doing it" will start to hold water. The failure will be seen as systematic, and worthy of investigation, but not of any extra punishment beyond the reforms which will be suggested then half-heartedly implemented on the industry. The chief executives who participated in cover-ups will get off.

What lesson does this teach banks and businesses in the future? Do not co-operate. Do not reveal anything to the authorities. If you hold your hands up and admit blame, you will be pilloried, but if you bury your wrongdoings until someone else is found out, you'll get away scott-free.

That doesn't seem to be the best idea.

Barclays bank, being punished worst for coming clean first. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation