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.
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?