photo by George Rex
The final casualty of the Libor rate-rigging scandal appears to be Libor itself. And like all the other losers in a case where banks flat-out lied to benefit themselves, the consequences are fully deserved.
Before the scandal that led to $9 billion in collective penalties, a spate of high-profile resignations and several individual convictions, few people outside the financial industry knew anything about the London Interbank Offered Rate, more commonly called Libor. After, the headlines were eye-catching. Barclays Bank was fined $200 million by the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, $160 million by the Justice Department and 59.5 million pounds ($77.9 million at today’s rates) by the U.K.’s Financial Services Authority. British financial firm ICAP paid a combined $87 million; Lloyds Banking Group was fined $370 million; UBS paid $1.5 billion; and Deutsche Bank paid $2.5 billion, setting a record no financial institution is eager to break.
In the aftermath, regulators overhauled Libor. Intercontinental Exchange took over the rate’s administration from the now-defunct British Bankers Association (which was merged into another trade group last month). The U.K.’s Financial Conduct Authority – one of the two agencies that split off from the former Financial Services Authority – took over regulating Libor in the U.K. in 2013. Given Libor’s importance to the global banking system, and the proof that a rate based on estimates was prone to manipulation, regulators began to favor financial benchmarks based on actual transactions, making it harder to fake.
The theory isn’t a bad one. But after the Libor scandal, some believed the benchmark was simply too tainted to retain its central position. Regulators in the United States, the United Kingdom and elsewhere pushed banks toward adopting alternate reference rates.
Andrew Bailey, the chief executive of FCA, just gave them a final shove. In a speech delivered on July 27, Bailey announced that after a five-year transition period, the agency will no longer ask or demand that banks submit data to the Libor calculation. While the Intercontinental Exchange could continue to generate Libor rates after 2021, Bailey urged financial institutions not to count on Libor lasting beyond the deadline.
The demise of Libor is not directly due to the rate tampering that caused the scandal several years ago. The larger problem is that banks are lending to one another much less than they used to, so the transactions now used to calculate Libor are thinning out. As Bailey said in his speech, “If an active market does not exist, how can even the best run benchmark measure it?”
So the search for a new interest rate benchmark now has a deadline.
In the United Kingdom, the Bank of England has been working to refine the Sterling Overnight Index Average, or Sonia. Sonia is also based on real-world transactions, and an industry working group endorsed it as a Libor substitute earlier this year. In May, The European Central Bank suggested that it might replace Euribor, the euro-centric Libor counterpart, with a new reference rate too.
On this side of the pond, 15 banks voted in June to phase in a Libor substitute based on short-term loans, called repurchase agreements or “repo” trades, which are backed by Treasury securities. According to The Wall Street Journal, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York would publish this new reference rate in cooperation with the Office of Financial Research. Like Sonia, the repo rate would be based on real transactions, excluding repo trades made with the Fed itself. While the June vote merely represented a step toward Libor replacement – adoption of the new benchmark will be voluntary for now – a repo rate would rest on a much more robust market and would offer a more secure long-term alternative with Libor’s future now dubious at best.
I won’t be surprised if, in fact, more than one benchmark comes into widespread use as a replacement for Libor, even in the United States alone. With the news that Libor’s days are almost certainly numbered, financial institutions will need to evaluate what they want out of a benchmark and what method seems most likely to provide it. As Bailey told Bloomberg in an interview, “Libor is trying to do too many things: it’s trying to be a measure of bank risk and it’s trying to substitute for interest-rate risk markets where really it would be better to use a risk-free rate.” Libor has been around for decades, but there are almost certainly better solutions available today.
Unfortunately the search for a Libor replacement has been hampered by one of the more unwise responses to the financial crisis: the restrictions on mutual funds that pushed them away from holding privately issued debt and toward government obligations instead, on the dubious theory that government obligations are intrinsically safer. Exhibit A for the fallacy of this idea is Puerto Rico, but there are many others, including the state of Illinois and the city of Detroit.
We can see the outcome in the troubles of the Overnight Bank Funding Rate, a benchmark designed by the Fed and another contender for the United States’ Libor replacement. The OBFR debuted in March, but has struggled due to low trading volume. A major contributor to the problem was the deeply misguided changes to money market funds that took effect in fall 2016. As the rules intended, many investors abandoned “prime” funds in favor of government bond funds, leaving the OBFR potentially facing the same problem – too little data – that led U.K. regulators to pull the plug on Libor.
The key takeaway from the Libor fiasco is that the best financial data comes from genuine, real-world, arm’s length transactions that occur in liquid markets with a steady and ample supply of buyers and sellers. It sounds simple and, more often than not, it actually is. Or at least it would be, if regulators would focus on making sure that everyone plays by the same set of fair rules, rather than deflecting blame when cheating or failures occur by trying to write new rules that supposedly make it impossible for the breach to ever happen again.
Libor was flawed as a concept because it was based on self-reporting, and potentially self-serving, estimates rather than real and transparent transactions. The push toward its replacements should focus on creating access to valid and transparent data fed into a formula that anyone can replicate. Otherwise the likely result is that someday there will be another scandal like the one that spelled the beginning of the end for Libor.