How to set Libor in a post-Barclays age

Time for the banks to have some skin in the game

The Libor-fixing scandal is obviously problematic for a number of reasons, but one of the biggest ones is that it isn't entirely clear how to prevent it happening again. The only reason we know for sure the rates were artificially set are the (still astonishing) internal emails from Barclays requesting that.

The issue is that, certainly at the height of the financial crisis, and even now, Libor relies on self-reported rates. Banks rarely actually borrow in large quantities from the inter-bank market any more, so rather than reporting what they are borrowing at, they are forced to report what they think they could report at. The problem then is that unless you have cast-iron evidence that there is an ulterior motive, its hard to distinguish rate-fixing from just not really guesstimating your rates very well.

Some have responded to this by arguing that the replacement to Libor should be based on actual borrowing. If a bank isn't borrowing on the inter-bank market, they report some other similar cost of capital; if they aren't borrowing at all, they don't submit. But in the FT today, Frank Partnoy comes up with another, more ingenious solution:

The teeth of the new regulation would be a rule requiring the bank that submitted the lowest Libor estimate to lend a significant amount of money, say $1bn, to the Libor Trust at its submitted low rate. Conversely, the bank submitting the highest Libor estimate would be required to borrow the same amount from the Libor Trust, in the relevant currency for the specified period of time, at its submitted high rate.

So if Barclays under-reports its rate by 1 per cent and finds itself the lowest reporting bank, it suddenly loses out on $10m over the course of a year. And the same problem if it over-reports. If, meanwhile, RBS over-reports by 1 per cent, it loses out on the same; and the trust in charge of setting the rates pockets the $20m difference (which could then go towards running costs, into the Treasury, or some other noble cause).

If there is a problem with that, it's that it may not be entirely painless to be forced to borrow $1bn even at accurately reported rates. But that seems like a small price to pay for regenerating trust in a system which has suffered a severe blow.

Barclays. Rates up, up, up? 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