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.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.