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: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.