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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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories