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.

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Theresa May’s Brexit speech is Angela Merkel’s victory – here’s why

The Germans coined the word “merkeln to describe their Chancellor’s approach to negotiations. 

It is a measure of Britain’s weak position that Theresa May accepts Angela Merkel’s ultimatum even before the Brexit negotiations have formally started

The British Prime Minister blinked first when she presented her plan for Brexit Tuesday morning. After months of repeating the tautological mantra that “Brexit means Brexit”, she finally specified her position when she essentially proposed that Britain should leave the internal market for goods, services and people, which had been so championed by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. 

By accepting that the “UK will be outside” and that there can be “no half-way house”, Theresa May has essentially caved in before the negotiations have begun.

At her meeting with May in July last year, the German Chancellor stated her ultimatum that there could be no “Rosinenpickerei” – the German equivalent of cherry picking. Merkel stated that Britain was not free to choose. That is still her position.

Back then, May was still battling for access to the internal market. It is a measure of how much her position has weakened that the Prime Minister has been forced to accept that Britain will have to leave the single market.

For those who have followed Merkel in her eleven years as German Kanzlerin there is sense of déjà vu about all this.  In negotiations over the Greek debt in 2011 and in 2015, as well as in her negotiations with German banks, in the wake of the global clash in 2008, Merkel played a waiting game; she let others reveal their hands first. The Germans even coined the word "merkeln", to describe the Chancellor’s favoured approach to negotiations.

Unlike other politicians, Frau Merkel is known for her careful analysis, behind-the-scene diplomacy and her determination to pursue German interests. All these are evident in the Brexit negotiations even before they have started.

Much has been made of US President-Elect Donald Trump’s offer to do a trade deal with Britain “very quickly” (as well as bad-mouthing Merkel). In the greater scheme of things, such a deal – should it come – will amount to very little. The UK’s exports to the EU were valued at £223.3bn in 2015 – roughly five times as much as our exports to the United States. 

But more importantly, Britain’s main export is services. It constitutes 79 per cent of the economy, according to the Office of National Statistics. Without access to the single market for services, and without free movement of skilled workers, the financial sector will have a strong incentive to move to the European mainland.

This is Germany’s gain. There is a general consensus that many banks are ready to move if Britain quits the single market, and Frankfurt is an obvious destination.

In an election year, this is welcome news for Merkel. That the British Prime Minister voluntarily gives up the access to the internal market is a boon for the German Chancellor and solves several of her problems. 

May’s acceptance that Britain will not be in the single market shows that no country is able to secure a better deal outside the EU. This will deter other countries from following the UK’s example. 

Moreover, securing a deal that will make Frankfurt the financial centre in Europe will give Merkel a political boost, and will take focus away from other issues such as immigration.

Despite the rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party, the largely proportional electoral system in Germany will all but guarantee that the current coalition government continues after the elections to the Bundestag in September.

Before the referendum in June last year, Brexiteers published a poster with the mildly xenophobic message "Halt ze German advance". By essentially caving in to Merkel’s demands before these have been expressly stated, Mrs May will strengthen Germany at Britain’s expense. 

Perhaps, the German word schadenfreude comes to mind?

Matthew Qvortrup is author of the book Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influential Leader published by Duckworth, and professor of applied political science at Coventry University.