BBA cedes Libor role – who will replace them?

The government may want a place in the process.

The British Bankers Association has voted to cede its role in the setting of Libor, the benchmark of borrowing costs which lay at the centre of the Barclays rate-fixing scandal.

The BBA, the professional body of the banking industry in Britain, voted to cede its role last week, at the request of officials who, according to the Financial Times (£) plan to announce a replacement process on Friday.

The managing director of the Financial Services Authority, Martin Wheatley, is chairing the review of the reference rates, and the BBA has said in a statement that it:

Seeks to work with the Wheatley review team as they complete their consultation on the future of Libor. If Mr Wheatley’s recommendations include a change of responsibility for Libor, the BBA will support that.

While the BBA has ceded its role, the organisation which sets Libor's sibling rate, Euribor, has no such plans. Even though Euribor was also subject to attempted manipulation by Barclays, the European Banking Federation, which controls it, told the FT that:

There is no comparison with the Libor case. Our stakeholders are national associations and not the banks themselves, this prevents any potential conflict of interest in hosting the governance of benchmarks.

The big question remaining to be answered is what recommendations Wheatley will offer. There have been no shortage of inventive solutions as to how to set Libor in a non-manipulable way.

In July, Frank Portnoy suggested what remains the most ingenious possibility:

The teeth of the new regulation would be a rule requiring the bank that submitted the lowest Libor estimate to lend a significant amount of money, say $1bn, to the Libor Trust at its submitted low rate. Conversely, the bank submitting the highest Libor estimate would be required to borrow the same amount from the Libor Trust, in the relevant currency for the specified period of time, at its submitted high rate.

But as Reviews tend to be less "inventive" and more "gut wrenchingly predictable", it seems more likely he will hew closer to Nils Pratley's suggestion in the Guardian:

A mass of technical issues remain for Martin Wheatley, the Financial Services Authority official leading the inquiry, to address in his report on Friday. For example: how do you switch to surer benchmarks based on actual lending if there are no transactions on a given day in some of the markets? Remember, there is no single Libor rate; instead there are benchmarks covering 15 borrowing periods in 10 different currencies.

That's one detailed puzzle for Wheatley to solve. But his main proposal should be easy: make it a criminal act to try to manipulate Libor.

Expect more legislation, more intervention, and a lot of locking of stable doors when the horse is nowhere to be found.

Buildings in the City. 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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The government has admitted it can curb drugs without criminalising users

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity