Be like Iceland

Leftist wing truthiness….

 

Get out the pitchforks all you want, but if the left thinks throwing Jamie Dimon in jail is the path to prosperity, the evidence says otherwise…

 

Iceland

 

Compare to US growth: (which is still the worse post-WWII recovery on record:

 

US GDP growth

On LIBOR, finis

As I said in my original post, there are two distinct aspects to the LIBOR manipulation story.  My previous two posts have addressed the possibility that LIBOR was being routinely manipulated by traders to suit their positions.  But the alleged manipulation during the crisis of 2008 was of an entirely different nature, done (presumably) not to profit from existing trading positions but rather to obscure from the public the true depth of the on-going crisis by submitting too-low estimates of the cost of borrowing.  At first glance, this “manipulation” seems more troubling than that discussed previously, primarily because the intent seems to be precisely to deceive.   But I do think any judgment must ultimately take into account the context of the crisis itself and what was going on at the time.  It is not my intent here to pass my own judgment on the matter, but rather to present what I think are relevant issues for anyone wishing to consider the matter before they condemn Barclays (or anyone else) for their actions.

First, just as background, take a look at a graph of LIBOR rates throughout the worst of the crisis, starting in pre-crisis July and ending in December.

 

 

What was basically a flat-line through mid-September starts to spike on the day that Lehman failed, and continued to rise quite drastically every day, by about 200 basis points in the span of less than a month, until the Fed began in earnest its efforts to alleviate credit fears and get the capital markets functioning again.  That 200 basis point rise in the span of a few weeks really is quite extraordinary, and is testament to the degree to which fear had taken over the market, and the extent to which credit markets had seized up.   It is also testament to the fact that, whatever individual banks were submitting to the BBA as reported LIBOR contributions, LIBOR itself was clearly reflecting deep problems in the credit market.  As I said, a 200 bp move in such a short time really is quite extraordinary.

Should the spike have been even sharper, but for the “false” reporting of banks such as Barclays?  Perhaps.  But consider the possibility that at times Barclays (and others?) probably couldn’t borrow at all in the interbank markets.  Again, fear was rampant, and everyone was hoarding cash.  Many banks that had cash were holding it as reserves rather than lending it out regardless of the rate.  The credit markets had largely stopped functioning.  So what is a contributing member of the LIBOR panel supposed to report as its borrowing rate when it hasn’t been able to borrow at all?  Infinity?  It is possible that the whole process of establishing a LIBOR rate could/should have broken down entirely.

Consider also the fact that members of the BBA’s LIBOR panel were placed in a distinctly disadvantageous market position relative to non-members.  A non-member would have no obligation to post daily proclamations of their ability (or lack thereof) to borrow in the interbank market, and so would have less to fear from a negative feedback loop, whereby increasing credit fears lead to rising borrowing costs, which in turn would lead to even more increasing fears about one’s ability to pay it off, thus sparking even higher borrowing costs.  LIBOR panel members, on the other hand, were in a position of having to announce to the world every day at 11 am GMT just how much the rest of the interbank market feared their collapse.  Honesty, that is, had the potential to do even more damage to the company than was already occurring.

Finally the Fed, along with other central banks, was clearly spending much of its time trying to quell the contagion of credit fear.   They didn’t want LIBOR increasing by leaps and bounds every day either, and would certainly have been in daily contact with all of the major banks.  So I find it entirely plausible that either or both the Bank of England and the Fed  knew of any low-balling of the submissions and either explicitly or implicitly approved it.

Again, I am not necessarily trying to absolve Barclays or anyone else of any possible wrong-doing here.  Even given the points I’ve raised, I don’t know for sure what the right course of action was.  But I do think it is necessary to judge whatever was done in the context of the times.  We were in extraordinary circumstances and in some respects in entirely uncharted territory.  In such circumstances, it is not clear to me that the normal rules necessarily apply.

(I fear that my points above are not as clear or coherent as I would like them to be.  I am currently working on 3 hours of sleep in the last 2 days, and am falling asleep as I write, but I really wanted to get this up today, so I hope  it at least makes some sense and you can get the gist of what I am trying to say.)

On LIBOR, part 2

At the end of my last post, I posed the question of whether or not any possible attempts to manipulate the daily LIBOR quote had been successful.  To look at this question, I analyzed 3 years worth of  daily 3-month LIBOR data, from January 2005 thru December 2007, a time during which routine manipulation was allegedly being attempted.

Now, just to be clear, my analysis cannot be said to be definitive.  To determine if, on any given day, an attempted manipulation was successful, and to what degree, one would need to look at all of the individual submissions that comprised the average resulting in the published LIBOR rate that day,   determine which if any of those submissions should have been a different rate, establish what the submission should have been, and then recalculate the average using that new rate.  That is beyond the bounds of what I can do here.  Nor have I attempted to determine the effect of any possible collusion between two or more panel members, which would be even more complicated.  All I will attempt to do here is to look at daily LIBOR settings in the context of the rates before and after, and the longer term trends, both actual and expected given market conditions at the time, to determine if the published rate makes sense and seems reasonable or if it seems odd and counterintuitive.

In looking at the data, one interesting thing appears immediately.   For almost an entire year, from mid-September 2006 until mid-August 2007, the daily LIBOR quote barely moved at all.

From September 20, 2006 until August 7, 2007 the high rate was 5.3875% (on September 20, 2006) and the low rate was 5.33% (on March 5, 2007).  Why were rates so steady during this time period?  Primarily because the Fed was maintaining a steady rates policy, and in the absence of any credit crisis, LIBOR will tend to mirror Fed policy.  So, with rate policy on hold for nearly a year, this would seem like an ideal time period to look for manipulation of LIBOR.  If it was going on during this time period, one would expect to see seemingly arbitrary daily moves both up and down in the otherwise steady published rate.

In fact what we see is remarkable consistency.  Indeed, for two extended periods, from Dec 26, 2006 until February 27, 2007, and then again from May 10, 2007 until July 26, 2007, we saw quite literally not a single change in the daily LIBOR rate of 5.36%.  For these two periods the graph is a perfectly flat line.

It seems highly unlikely that any manipulation could have been taking place during these two flat-line periods.   Overall, from Sep 20, ’06 until August 7, ’07, on days in which LIBOR did change from the previous day, the average change was .0029%, or less than one-third of a basis point.  And there were only 5 days over the course of this entire  222 day period in which the change in LIBOR from the previous day was even greater than 1 bp, with the biggest single change being 1.8 bps.

Now, perhaps it might be interesting to investigate further into why the rate changed by more than 1 bp on the 5 days in which it did, with an eye towards whether the change was the result of the same bank or banks altering their LIBOR submission on those days, and whether those days coincided with e-mails from traders requesting a higher or lower submission.  But regardless of the outcome of such an investigation, we can say, I think, that whatever attempted manipulation may have gone on during this period, it was neither all that regularly successful nor, if it was successful, did it alter the rate all that significantly, averaging barely a quarter of a basis point.

As an aside, some of you may be wondering why I chose September 20 and August 7 as a starting/stopping point for this particular analysis.  I chose September 20 because that was the date on which the Fed first announced that it was holding rates steady after over a year of rate hikes, and I chose August 7 because it was in early August that Bear Stearns’ impending meltdown began to really effect the market, with the collapse of two of its sub-prime funds and the requested resignation of its president Warren Specter.  This graph shows how rates began to react first to the news of Bear Stearns in early August by spiking from what had been essentially a flat-line, and then to the 50 bp rate cut by the Fed on Sep 18, the first of many cuts that would result in the zero rate policy that we still have today.

What about periods prior to September 2006?  Can evidence of successful manipulation be found there?  Well, it is somewhat more difficult to analyze this period because the Fed had an active rate-hiking policy prior to September 2006, and so the LIBOR rate was changing pretty much on a daily basis in response to this rate hiking policy.  For example, see this graph for the period between August 9, 2005 and December 13, 2005, a period in which the Fed hiked rates by 25 bps on September 20, November 1, and again on December 13.

With the exception of two consecutive days, September 1 and 2 on which the rate oddly dropped first by 1.5 bps and then by 9.4 bps, the graph looks pretty much exactly as you would expect it to, slowly increasing incrementally every day to keep up with the anticipated (and ultimately realized) Fed actions of raising rates.  For example, between the November 1 and December 13 Fed announcement dates, on which the FED announced a 25 bp rate hike, the average daily change in LIBOR was .9 bp, with a max of 2 bps (both times over weekends, so accounting for 3 days worth of change) and the rate steadily moved from 4.2606% to 4.4913%, almost exactly the expected 25 bps.   This steady and consistent change is not indicative of any manipulation, or, if there was any, its effect was just fractions of a basis point.

That 9 bp drop on September 2 is certainly an interesting outlier.  What could have caused that?  Frankly I don’t know.   It is possible that it is the result of manipulation, although I doubt it because in order to get that much of a change, any manipulation would have to have been both coordinated with many other panel members and fairly egregious.  The absence of other equally odd outliers at other points suggests to me that something peculiar happened that particular day in the market causing the drop rather than being an example of regular manipulation.  But, again, I don’t really know the answer, so I could be wrong.

In any event, my look at the 3 years prior to 2008 does not suggest to me any obvious evidence of significant, successful alteration of LIBOR from what one would expect.  Which brings us to what I originally said needed to be the subject of a separate discussion:  possible manipulation of LIBOR during the crisis of 2008 in order to hide funding difficulties from the market.  That will be the subject of my next post.

On LIBOR, part 1

So I figured it was time to weigh in with a post about the LIBOR scandal.  I will say upfront that, while it is a scandal, I think that, because of the general bank-bashing atmosphere that prevails in certain media and political circles right now, it has been blown far out of all proportion.  Our own jnc has tended to focus, not unreasonably, on the implications that the scandal presents for the kind of culture that prevails in the finance industry.  While I don’t agree that it is nearly as indicative of a widespread culture of dishonesty and corruption as jnc seems to, I think it is at least a fair question.  I have no time, however, for the Taibbis and Simpsons of the world who are doing their utmost to portray this as some kind of huge and concerted rip-off of Main Street, municipalities, widows and orphans, or whoever else is their latest chosen victim. That is just a bunch of bunk.

There are actually two separate issues here, and they need to be discussed separately. The first is the claim that individual traders were routinely manipulating the daily LIBOR set, both higher and lower, to benefit their trading positions on any given day.  The second is that, during the crisis of ’08, some banks were reporting falsely low borrowing costs in order to keep their funding difficulties from becoming public information.  Let’s address the former first, and perhaps a little history would be useful.  

Prior to the advent of LIBOR swap contracts used many different floating rate indices such as Prime or T-Bills (which is of course manipulated by the Fed as a matter of course), and even at times an individual bank’s own lending rate, determined solely at it’s own discretion.   Then in the mid ’80’s the demon derivatives market invented LIBOR in order to standardize swap contracts by basing them all off of a single, reasonable and standard measure of a “premium” bank’s borrowing cost.   Banks liked this because, even if the published rate was not exactly their own borrowing cost, it was a fair enough approximation to make their contracts sensible. Spreads could be added to this standard for individual contracts to account for the varying credit quality of the contracting parties, but LIBOR would represent a baseline index. In the beginning there were actually competing publishers of daily LIBOR rates, each with their own methodology of calculating the rates.  There were different contributors as well as different averaging and rounding conventions, and so the “standard” wasn’t quite that.  But over time the British Bankers Association’s published BBA Libor became the dominant rate and eventually the market standard.

From the first, LIBOR was defined broadly and was never meant to be some exact rate that mirrored an already established market rate.    In the first place, it’s nature as an average of many different bank rates, with both high and low submissions being deliberately excluded, makes it nothing more than an approximation anyway.  Second, the rate that the BBA requested as submissions was always very subjective.  Originally the BBA simply asked each contributing bank’s opinion of  where an unnamed, generic “prime” bank might be able to borrow:  ““At what rate do you think interbank term deposits will be offered by one prime bank to another prime bank for a reasonable market size today at 11am?”. 

Later, in 1998, it changed it’s question to “At what rate could you borrow funds, were you to do so by asking for and then accepting inter-bank offers in a reasonable market size just prior to 11 am?” So now, rather than asking about a hypothetical bank’s borrowing costs, it was asking about the bank’s own borrowing costs.  But note the qualifying and indeterminate language.  What is “reasonable”?  What if you weren’t actually in the market “just prior” to 11 am?  What if you borrowed from three different banks at three slightly different rates? What if you borrowed at 10am, and then saw that the market sold off between then and 11 am? Do you submit your actual rate or what you guess it would have been an hour later? What if you weren’t a borrower at all, but were in fact lending to other banks on a given day?

The main point here is that, contrary to the perception being fostered by outraged pundits and opportunistic politicians, there is no single, objectively knowable “correct” rate to be submitted by any given bank.  Obviously there is not only room for a subjective interpretation and judgment on the part of the  individual submitters, such a judgement is often actually required.  There is some range of rates within which it is perfectly reasonable to have submitted, even of it is not an actual rate that you transacted.  

Now, if one is tasked with submitting the daily rate to the BBA, how does one make this judgement, and is it ethical to be influenced by the entreaties of traders who stand to benefit or lose from your judgement?  That is a fair question and perhaps a point worth debating.  But I actually think it is debatable.  If the nonexistent “correct” rate falls within a range of, say, 3 or 4 basis points, is it really wrong or unethical to take into consideration the financial well being of the company you work for when deciding whether to report the high or low end of the range?  I don’t think so, at least not necessarily.  And the fact that one rate within the band is chosen and not another does not mean that the rate has been criminally “manipulated” or that the rate has been “fraudulently” submitted. As long as the submitted rate is defensible on the merits, regardless of how the judgement was arrived at, I don’t see a problem.  Certainly, in any event, this is not some “criminal conspiracy” akin to the mob shaking people down.  

And in fact the whole process of calculating LIBOR takes all of this into account.  That is precisely one of the reasons that such a wide number of banks (18) are polled and averaged, and why the high and low submissions are excluded from the average. As the BBA itself says, “The decision to trim the bottom and top quartiles in the calculation was taken to exclude outliers from the final calculation. By doing this, it is out of the control of any individual panel contributor to influence the calculation and affect the bbalibor quote.” Which brings us to another, and I think more important question:  Regardless of whether routine attempts to influence the submissions are ethical, were they successful in changing the rate?

That will be the subject of a future post.

LIBOR

New thread for the LIBOR investigation:

Here are some links:

Matt Taibbi:

A Huge Break in the LIBOR Banking Investigation

Another Domino Falls in the LIBOR Banking Scam: Royal Bank of Scotland

Reuters:

Barclays’ gift to private antitrust plaintiffs in Libor case

Bloomberg:

Barclays Big-Boy Breaches Mean Libor Fixes Not Enough

Daily Mail:

“Earlier, Tan Chi Min, a former head of delta trading for RBS’s global banking and markets division in Singapore, alleged that managers at RBS condoned collusion between its staff to set the Libor rate artificially high or low to maximise profits.

He named five staff members he claims made requests for the Libor rate to be altered and three senior managers who he said knew what was going on.

 He also says the practice ‘was known to other members of [RBS]’s senior management’.

Mr Tan, who was eventually sacked for gross misconduct, worked for RBS from August 2006 to November 2011and alleges that senior members of staff knew about Libor fixing, and that the behaviour started while Fred Goodwin was chief executive”


British bankers now face criminal inquiry after 20 more banks are found to have rigged interest rates

My overarching question would be at what point do repeated patterns of criminal misconduct from the same organizations cease to be isolated incidents of specific bad actors and instead become a systemic problem with the organization itself?

Bank bailouts and “risky bets”

The conventional story line behind the passage of the new Dodd-Frank regulations, and in particular the Volcker rule, is that prior to 2008 banks were using federally guaranteed deposits to engage in highly risky “bets” using complex and esoteric derivative products which eventually blew up, necessitating a government bailout of the banks. In order to prevent taxpayers from yet again having to bear the cost of these risky bets going bad in the future banking activity needs to be much more heavily regulated and indeed much activity, such as these “bets” using derivatives, needs to be prevented entirely.

When it is pointed out, as I did yesterday, that in fact the “bailout” of the banks didn’t cost the taxpayers anything, and that the taxpayer has actually netted a profit on the assistance provided to banks during the 2008/09 crisis, the usual retort (although admittedly not in evidence yesterday) is that the bailout of AIG, while not officially a bank bailout, was in reality a backdoor bailout of the banks, and that particular bailout has not only not netted any profit for taxpayers, it is almost certainly going to result in a loss. While this is certainly a reasonable point to make, it also demonstrates the folly behind the conventional belief that it was “risky bets” on derivatives that resulted in bank losses.

The reason that the AIG bailout can be seen as an implicit bank bailout is that AIG owed the banks (or it owed some banks/institutions which in turn owed others) a lot of money on its derivative trades, and if AIG defaulted on its obligations, the banks would be out a lot of money. But if these were simple, outright bets of the sort routinely condemned by those in favor of Volcker or Glass-Steagall on the part of the banks, the bailout would have been totally unnecessary because the bank “losses” would have simply been paper losses of profit, not an actual drain on bank capital. The reason that AIG’s failure to pay would have been so devastating to the banks is because the gains from the “bets” with AIG were needed to offset losses that were being incurred elsewhere on other positions, for example corporate and real estate lending activities. In other words, the “risky bets” with AIG must in fact have been hedges, not outright bets. To draw an analogy, if you make a $1 million dollar bet with your neighbor on the outcome of the Super Bowl, but he fails to pay you when you win, you have, strictly speaking, “lost” $1 million dollars, but you aren’t going to have to sell your house and bankrupt yourself because of it. You haven’t actually “lost” any of your previously held capital at all.

The real problem, of course, was not that the banks lost on their “bets”, but that without the payouts from these “bets” that they had actually “won”, the banks stood to lose actual capital on the positions that the AIG “bets” were meant to hedge. Looked at another way, the losses the banks faced due to an AIG collapse were not due to “risky bets” on derivatives, but were instead due to a bad credit decision, ie the judgement that AIG would make good on its covering obligations. And as far as I know, no one is proposing that banks be disallowed from making credit decisions in order to protect taxpayers from such risk.

Now, the AIG situation does point to an area of the various derivatives markets that does deserve some attention. Would the banks’ judgement of AIG as a worthy credit have been the same had they known the extent of the risks that AIG was insuring against? Or, would AIG themselves have insured so much risk if they were required to post hard capital as margin/collateral against potential losses (over and above simple mark-to-market collateral) on the risks they were insuring? These are worthy questions, and areas where sensible regulation might prove beneficial. But the conventional portrayal of “risky bets” on derivatives as the cause of bank losses necessitating a bank bailout is both wrong and is spawning monstrous regulations that will do little more than make banks less profitable than they otherwise would be, and hence more likely to fail.

Morning Report

Vital Statistics:

Last Change Percent
S&P Futures 1344.3 -4.8 -0.36%
Eurostoxx Index 2486.5 -5.1 -0.20%
Oil (WTI) 101.08 0.2 0.17%
LIBOR 0.4976 -0.005 -0.99%
US Dollar Index (DXY) 79.279 0.144 0.18%
10 Year Govt Bond Yield 1.94% -0.03%

Markets are a touch weaker after a disappointing retail sales number. Advance retail sales for January were up .4% vs. expectations of .8%.  S&P futures sold off slightly on the number while bonds and mortgage backed securities rallied. For those who follow charts, the S&P is right up against resistance at the 1350 level.  If we break through, the next stop is 1600 or so.

European markets are flat in spite of Moody’s downgrades of Spain, Portugal, and Italy yesterday. The ratings agencies have been behind the curve for the whole crisis. European finance ministers are set to meet in Brussels tomorrow to approve a second Greek bailout.

Andrew Ross Sorkin has a good article on the Volcker Rule and the Costs of Good Intentions. At issue is where one draws the line between bona fide market making and proprietary trading. Bona Fide market making serves a purpose in that it keeps trading costs down and adds liquidity to the market. (FWIW, Paul Volcker doesn’t necessarily think this is a good thing). The crux of the issue is whether investment banks will be allowed to maintain an inventory of product. If they aren’t permitted to maintain any inventory of any size, then all trades will be agency trades.  In other words, if the bank can’t find the other side of your trade, you’re out of luck.

The CFPB has laid out a broad outline of some of the changes it expects to make for mortgage servicers. The initial steps will involve changes to billing statements – new rules to make it clearer when resets will occur, better contact information, and a statement from HUD.  An example of the new template is here.  The rules will also address forced-place insurance, where servicers can put a homeowner in a new, more expensive insurance plan if they fall behind in their payments.

Does anyone find it ironic that the rule which sets new tax rates on dividends is named after a guy who’s company doesn’t pay them?

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