Nobody ever thought Barclays was the only bank fixing Libor

Those in charge always knew that other banks were involved. So why have they got away so far?

Over the weekend, it became clearer than ever that Barclays were not the only bank involved in Libor rate-fixing, a fact which will have ramifications for the future of Paul Tucker, the Bank of England official tied up in the scandal, but also raises further questions about the proporitionality of the response, both official and popular.

A bumper report from the Sunday Telegraph's Philip Aldrick details the smoking gun:

The 2011 report by the Financial Services Authority into the collapse of Royal Bank of Scotland in early October 2008, three weeks before Tucker’s call with Diamond, makes clear the lender had lost its access to the money markets, noting that the “liquidity run reached extreme proportions”.

"On 7 October, 2008, RBS’s wholesale counterparties, as well as, to a lesser extent, retail depositors, were simply not prepared to meet its funding needs and RBS was left reliant on ELA from the Bank of England," wrote the FSA.

The reference to ELA, or Emergency Liquidity Assistance, is important as Tucker, unlike the rest of the market at that stage, would have known that the Bank of England had begun providing secret loans, first to crisis-ridden HBOS and then to RBS, that totalled nearly £62bn.

Speaking to the Treasury Select Committee in November 2009, Tucker told the MPs that without the emergency loans it “would have been a lot worse than it would have been” otherwise. “This was a classic lender of last resort operation,” he said.

Records of historic Libor submissions available on Bloomberg show that despite HBOS and RBS being on emergency life support they were both submitting Libor figures that appeared to show they could borrow at cheaper rates in dollars and sterling than Barclays throughout the months leading up to the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, and in the period afterwards.

The normal way that Libor - and, indeed, lending in general - works is that the weaker a bank is, the more it has to pay to borrow. In the autumn of 2008, that all fell apart: banks which were too weak could offer high rates to borrow at, but those high rates were themselves taken as a sign that the banks were on the brink of collapse.

The result of this is that there was basically no level at which HBOS and RBS could borrow all the money they needed (the technical parlance is that there was no level which "cleared" the market). It would have been impossible for them to submit true estimates of how much they'd have to pay to borrow large sums, because they simply could not borrow that much. To be accurate, Libor would have had to hit infinity per cent.

The Bank of England, and Paul Tucker particularly, must have known this, because even after RBS and Lloyds Banking Group had taken secret funding from the Bank (£60bn of loans to make up for their inability to get money through conventional routes) they continued posting Libor rates lower than Barclays.

This isn't to say that the other banks are necessarily as guilty as Barclays. While we know it is unlikely to be the only bank posting artificially low rates to look safe during the crisis, there is no indication as yet that any other banks were partaking in the far more dubious manipulation, aimed at simple profits, that occurred in the run-up to 2008.

Still, there must be someone at Barclays kicking themselves over the fact that they co-operated with the authorities. The intention was clearly to gain some credit, and possibly lax treatment, for pleading guilty and co-operating from the start. Instead, the bank has become the scapegoat for the crimes of an industry. As Felix Salmon writes:

In any case, when the other shoe drops, the headlines are going to be smaller: this kind of activity is never as shocking the second time around. Look at what happened to Citigroup, which was actually more evil than Goldman when it put together the Class V Funding III CDO. (The profits from Goldman’s Abacus deal went mostly to John Paulson; the profits from the Citi deal went straight to Citi.) Citi settled the case for $285 million — less than Goldman paid — and suffered almost none of the PR backlash that was inflicted on Goldman.

Stephen Hester must be feeling pretty lucky right now. Who wants to bet his name will come up as much as Bob Diamond's?

Stephen Hester, chief executive of RBS, which has been accused of manipulating Libor. 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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change