Libor Gets A Revamp But Is Not Consigned To History

Terry Flanagan

Once it was discovered back in June that the Libor rate had been manipulated by traders, it was only a matter of time before the rate-setting process was overhauled.

However, this once-obscure rate, which underlies at least $300 trillion of financial transactions, is too important to just toss to one side so a detailed review, in the shape of the Wheatley Review, which was set up by the U.K. government in the summer to look at how Libor was calculated and regulated, is now recommending new procedures to alleviate market abuse fears, bring back market confidence and minimize disruption to the markets.

Under the plans, which were unveiled late last week, the London interbank offered rate, or Libor, will get a radical overhaul including a pruning of the number of rates it offers from 150 to 20, a new independent administrator and tough new regulatory oversight.

A broad consensus of the financial services industry has come out in support of the review headed by Martin Wheatley, the U.K. Financial Services Authority’s managing director. And regulators in the U.S., Japan and the rest of Europe say they will use the Wheatley Review as a template for their own efforts to improve benchmark borrowing rates, which would help drive more reliable pricing for financial contracts involving such things as mortgages, oil and gold.

“[We] fully support the view of, and recommendation by, the Financial Services Authority to comprehensively reform Libor, rather than replacing it,” said the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA), a trade body, in a statement.

“ISDA believes that economically Libor continues to be hugely relevant to, and necessary for the proper functioning of, the OTC derivatives market and the underlying markets to which the derivatives relate. ISDA also supports the recommendations made by the Financial Services Authority in the areas of regulation, governance and changes to the rate itself.”

The integrity of Libor was brought into question in June when Barclays was hit with a record fine of $451 million from regulators in the U.K. and U.S after Britain’s second biggest bank admitted to manipulating Libor from 2005-2009 to the benefit of its derivative positions as well as by a desire to make the bank look stronger during the financial crisis. About a dozen other financial institutions on three continents are also under investigations, which may lead to others being implicated in the scandal.

Libor, which is is commonly used for sterling and U.S. dollar denominated instruments, is a notional rate set by a 16-bank panel based in London. Members of the panel of international banks are all asked how much it would cost to borrow from one and other and the rate is then calculated and published daily by market data vendor Thomson Reuters on behalf of the British Bankers’ Association (BBA), a trade association, covering a variety of currencies and time durations. The Euribor rate, which is used for euro denominated agreements, and is also under investigation, is derived in a similar way to Libor.

And the BBA is also accepting that its time as overseer of the Libor rate is coming to an end.

“The BBA has strongly stated the need for greater regulatory oversight of Libor, and tougher sanctions for those who try to manipulate it,” said the BBA in a statement.

“The BBA Council has indicated it would support any recommendation that responsibility for Libor should be passed to a new sponsor. The absolute priority now for everyone is to ensure the provision of a reliable benchmark which has the confidence and support of all users, contributors and global regulators, and we will work closely with the [U.K.] government and regulatory bodies to ensure this.”

Thomson Reuters’ role in the process, too, may be in its final throes. Rivals such as Bloomberg, FTSE and Markit are all expected contenders, along with Thomson Reuters, to bid for the new tender of collecting information from banks to calculate the Libor rate. Wheatley wants to see a competitive bidding process, with the winning organization responsible for the surveillance of submissions as part of the oversight of Libor. The benchmark rate is meant to provide an indication of the average rate at which a bank can obtain unsecured funding in the London interbank market for a given period, in a given currency.

Meanwhile, the governor of the Bank of England, Sir Mervyn King, also applauded the Wheatley Review but said more needed to be done to tighten up processes in the future.

“Over the medium to long term, further thinking will be needed to meet the challenge of benchmarks based on thinly traded markets, especially when they are quote-based,” said King.

While politicians in Europe, who are also in the process of pushing through stricter market abuse rules because of the Libor scandal, have also backed the Wheatley Review’s move to clamp down on market abuse and enforce stricter punishments for offenders, including jail sentences.

“There is no doubt that the Libor scandal is market manipulation of the worst kind,” said Arlene McCarthy, a left-of-center U.K. MEP who is vice-chair of the European parliament’s influential Economics and Monetary Affairs Committee and is also the parliament’s rapporteur on the European Union legislation on market abuse.

“Evidence given by experts in Brussels this week also indicated the need for an independent body to set this benchmark and to use real transactions rather than relying on estimates based on bankers judgements.

“In Brussels we are calling for an extension so that all benchmarks and indices fall under market abuse rules and for them all to undergo a thorough independent and accountable process. The Libor scandal has demonstrated that the culture in the financial sector has not changed and that they cannot be trusted to self regulate.”

However, one U.K. industry group, although supportive, was less enamored by the Wheatley proposals.

“Although there are few surprises in Wheatley’s recommendations they are sensible proposals for strengthening the system,” said Iain Coke, head of the financial services faculty at the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, a U.K. accounting body.

“We firmly support the demand that institutions obtain external assurance on their Libor processes and we are developing a framework for this. Ultimately, the Wheatley report is a specific response to deal with a specific problem. In order to regain trust in banking, what is needed is a real change in culture, embedding integrity and eradicating the ‘what can I get away with’ attitude.”

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