Libor manipulation doesn't necessarily mean Libor lies

Reducing the rates at which you loan is the good sort of manipulation

Yesterday afternoon, Ric Holden (the Conservative Party's press officer) tweeted this quote, apparently from the 8 November 2008 edition of the Daily Express:

Chancellor Alistair Darling summoned bank chiefs to an emergency meeting yesterday before reading them the riot act. Just hours later the banking industry reacted by slashing the Libor - the rate at which banks lend to one another.

It certainly sounds like it plays into the narrative that Labour directly encouraged Barclays to lie about the rate at which it thought it could borrow. But there's an important distinction between the communication between Paul Tucker and Bob Diamond (or rather, Jerry del Missier's apparent misinterpretation of their communication) and the meeting of Darling and the bank chiefs, which is that the latter is plural.

Remember that Libor is the rate at which banks believe they can borrow large sums of money, unsecured, from other banks. There are two ways to artificially reduce that number. One is to encourage the banks to lie about the rate they think they could pay for borrowing; this is what del Missier believed Paul Tucker had done.

The other is to encourage the banks to lend to each other at lower rates. That's not manipulating Libor, although it is, of course, manipulating other aspects of the finance system. It's something you can only do if you have the ear of all the banks, though; if Barclays unilaterally decides to loan to other banks for less, all that happens is they lose money. But if all the banks do that, then interbank lending rates drop.

The Telegraph's Andrew Lilico points out today that that may even be what Paul Tucker was talking about in his "no particular reason why Barclays should be borrowing at such a high rate" comment:

Take this as an example. The Bank of England, if it found that one of the banks – let us call it B Bank – were finding it harder to borrow money than the rest, might have a chat with B Bank to see why. It might reassure senior officials in B Bank that it still regarded B Bank as sound. It might even tell those officials that it would have a chat with other banks to reassure them as well. It might also feel that other banks were sufficiently sound that it would be prepared to provide last resort lending to them. The upshot of B Bank being sound and other banks being able to obtain cash from the Bank of England if necessary might be that other banks should feel able to lend money to B Bank at interbank rates not wildly dissimilar to the rates those other banks lend to each other. A perfectly natural way to convey this, perfectly proper, intention by the central bank to reassure other banks about B Bank might be to say that the Bank of England saw no particular reason why B Bank should always be borrowing at the most expensive rate.

Of course, there is a lesser question here, which is whether we should be using Daily Express reports for any type of historical record. Here are the various dollar Libor rates (from overnight to 12 month) for the two months surrounding the reported meeting, with the black line marking when it apparently occurred (click, as ever, for big):

That doesn't seem like a suspicious drop. Or really a suspicious anything.

Alistair Darling: the Brows are Back, 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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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.