Thursday, July 19, 2012

Libor Rate Fixing – What’s the Big Deal?

When the Barclay’s scandal about reporting lower-than-actual costs of borrowing to those who compile the Libor rate (London Interbank Offered Rate) I thought, “Isn’t this old news?” Sure enough, Calculated Risk, a blog I follow, posted a bunch of links that reminded me why I had indeed come to believe Libor was something of a fiction.

For the record, let’s back up a bit and describe what Libor is—and it’s not one thing; it’s actually 150 things: Libor rates are set for fifteen maturities and ten currencies. Every day around 11:00 a.m. major London banks report the rates they “expect” to pay to borrow for various lengths of time. The compiler ignores the top and bottom 25% of reported rates and averages the middle 50% to determine the Libor rates, which are released to the public at 11:30. Banks, insurance companies, credit card companies (and maybe even loan sharks for all I know) use these rates to determine the interest rates they charge on loan balances. If you check your loan agreement you may find that it calls for something like the 3-month Libor rate plus 2.75%.

The first thing to note is that if only one bank was misstating their rates by substantially over- or under-reporting their borrowing costs, it would make little or no difference to the Libor rate since the high and low outliers are excluded from the calculation. To make a difference to the reported rate requires malfeasance on the part of a significant portion of the reporting banks.

From documents reported so far, it appears that especially in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis many banks understated their reported Libor rates. People began to use the Libor rate as a proxy for understanding each bank’s health, which explains why a bank might report a lower rate than their real borrowing cost. No CEO wants others to view their bank as vulnerable. If no one will lend to a given financial institution, it will soon have to shut down. (See Lehman Brothers for example.)

As a consumer, this chicanery might actually be good news. If your loan agreement ties your interest rate to an understated Libor rate, you aren’t charged as much as you should be. You win; your lender loses. That is a zero-sum game. Holy financial boondoggle, Batman, the banks screwed themselves? Well, for sure they screwed those brethren not able to offset the losses from preternaturally lowered Libor rates. However, some banks have trading arms that take financial positions on (among other things) the movement of Libor rates. If you knew the rates weren’t going to move as much as the economics of the time suggested, perhaps you’d be a wee bit tempted to place a bet given your inside knowledge.

Perish the thought anyone in the financial industry might use inside information. The fools who took the other side of the Libor bets thought they knew better—but what does that say about them when someone like me, a simple retiree with a bit of time on his hands, was convinced the banks were not reporting accurate figures.

As individuals we need to keep in mind that we should never invest in something we don’t understand. That includes not investing money with someone who buys and sells financial instruments you don’t understand—it’s just as likely they don’t understand those financial instruments either. As further proof, just look at the hedging operation that has already cost JP Morgan Chase billions and they haven’t completely unwound their position.

As usual, the lawyers will make out the best since they represent both sides of all suits (and they have already started over the Libor mess) and always figure a way to be paid.

Oh, and if you want a way to fix the problem of the phantom reporting, here’s my solution. Forget about publishing an expected rate. Have the banker boys tell us the highest rate they actually paid during the last 12-hours. There might be a bit of a lag in the data, but we can audit the results and put behind bars those who lie. Which would you prefer, fresh lies no more than 30-minutes old or half-day-old truths? I’ll take the truth, thank you.

~ Jim

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