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Quelle Surprise! UBS Gets a Cost-of-Doing-Business Fine for “Epic” Libor Fraud (Updated)

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After the media uproar about HSBC’s deep involvement in the dirtiest sort of money-laundering, UBS’s mere Libor-fixing might look a tad pale. But the notice by the FSA clearly states that it regarded UBS’s conduct as far worse than that of Barclays, where the chairman, CEO, and president all stepped down. Of course, that was mainly because they dared try to shift blame to the Bank of England, claiming they’d gotten tacit approval, and the Bank would have none of it. But the severity of the sanctions against Barclays set a bar that hasn’t been met in subsequent regulatory actions. And Barclays is important because it shows the idea that you can’t go after top executives is a fiction. Barclays soldiers on despite the loss of its three top officers. Clemenceau was right: “The graveyards are full of indispensable men.”

By contrast, UBS is paying $1.5 billion in fines among three regulators: the FSA, the CFTC, and Finma, a Swiss regulator. The Department of Justice’s Lanny Breuer called the fraud “epic” yet only two staffers are targeted for prosecution: the apparent main actor, trader Tom Hayes, and his colleague Roger Darin, who are charged with mail fraud, price fixing, and conspiracy. Yet the FSA’s notice says that 40 individuals at the bank were involved in Libor manipulation, including 4 senior managers, and another 70 individuals were aware of it.

Bloomberg gives a good overview of the scheme if you don’t have time to read the FSA’s notice. The gaming was so extensive that the FSA noted that “every Libor and Euribor submission in currencies and tenors in which UBS traded is at risk of having been improperly influenced”. “Trader A” would often put in internal orders to manipulate prices for months at a time. The perps also bought the support of players at other firms, via offering profit sharing or other bribes, such as this one:

The FSA notice also confirms my pet theory that internal reviews are useless:

The FSA presents this review straight up when it’s hard to take it at face value. It’s hard to imagine that the legal department did not understand the conflicted role of Trader E and thus knew full well what sort of analysis he would gin up. Even though UBS implemented new procedures in 2008 and 2009, these appear to have been about as effective as corporate mission statements, due both to deficiencies in design and implementation. The directives were above all drafted to dampen down negative press (the Wall Street Journal had taken notice); managers who had been involved in the previous manipulation were involved in oversight; and the internal audit group did a mere “walk through” exercise.

This isn’t surprising if you understand the collusive relationship that has developed between front line staff and management in investment banking and trading businesses. As we wrote in ECONNED:

In the financial services industry version of looting, we instead have firms where operational authority is decentralized, vested in senior business managers, or “producers.” Because of industry evolution and perceived competitive pressures, these producers, as a result of formal incentives plus values held widely within the industry, focused solely on capturing the maximum amount possible in the current bonus period. The formal and informal rewards system thus tallies exactly with the topsy-turvy scheme of “maximizing current extractable value.”

In the past this behavior was positive, indeed highly productive, as long as it was contained and channeled via tough-minded oversight, meaning top management who could properly supervise the business. The main mechanisms are management reporting systems, risk management, and personal understanding of and involvement in day-to-day operations, plus external checks, such as regulations and criminal penalties. For a host of reasons, the balance of power has shifted entirely toward the forces that encourage looting. And because the damage that results cannot clearly be pinned on the top brass (like [the head of AIG's Financial Products unit Joe] Cerullo, they have thin but plausible deniability), it is difficult to ascertain from the outside whether the executives merely unwittingly enabled this process or were active perpetrators.

It turns out that even with extensive examinations, it’s hard to find smoking guns to pin bad activity on top level managers. Remember, the nitty gritty falls to lower-level (although often handsomely paid) professional who communicate with sufficient frequency that it’s possible to find e-mail footprints. And to the extent any of this ground was covered in meetings, PowerPoint only gives the high points; it’s far from a complete record. Senior managers tend to be recipients rather than generators of information, and much of what they convey is verbal: reactions when people come to their desk or office, comments on more formal presentation. And by the time Libor manipulation became an official concern, they’s be sure to be particularly circumspect in any written remarks.

Based on the FSA notice, Felix Salmon is finally convinced of the widespread nature of bank abuses:

Other fines, for other banks, are sure to follow this one — but if Barclays was dreadful and UBS was much worse than Barclays, it’s hard to imagine that anybody has clean hands here. You want to know why pretty much the entire financial sector is still trading at less than book value? This is why: the number of investors who trust the banks is now zero, and banking seems to have become a game of picking up fraudulent nickels in front of a relentless justice-department steamroller. (And for good measure there are all the civil suits as well: the $1.5 billion that UBS is paying today is just a down-payment on the all-in cost of its Libor fraud.)

Felix suggests that UBS has taken the most radical action possible, by pretty much abandoning the fixed income business. Note this appears to have been the result of greatly higher capital requirements in Switzerland. But the Libor scandal may have played a role, since the fixed income operations were the one business unit of four that were led by former UBS managers after the UBS-Swiss Bank merger (even though the UBS name survived, Swiss Bank was actually the dominant player in the deal). The near-closure of the fixed income operations has the former SBC units as the final survivors of that merger.

Bear in mind that this is not the end of the financial toll for UBS. The regulatory orders and notices will facilitate private suits. But that is not at all the same as having the individuals who were ultimately responsible face meaningful consequences.

What Felix depicts correctly as an aggressive measure is still on the wrong axis. So far, the top echelon of UBS is unaffected by this epic scandal. Until we see executives suffer (and fines are insufficient if they reamin wealthy), it’s a no-brainer that this type of behavior will continue, albeit in different businesses and new guises.

Update: Predictably, the New York Times’ Dealbook makes much of the fact that a unit of UBS plead guilty of bank fraud, the first “big global bank” to do so in over 20 years. But it was the Japanese unit that agreed to plead guilty to charges by the Department of Justice. This is kabuki, pun intended.

The reason US authorities are so leery of even indicting a major financial firm is that Federal government bodies as well as many private parties must cease doing business. The loss of many counterparties and the sudden unwinding of trades is correctly seen as hugely damaging to the firm in question, a probably death knell. Even AIG, which is not a major trading firm and is more foreign than American in terms of the mix of its business, felt it could not withstand an indictment; that’s the only way the wily and ruthless Hank Greenberg could be forced to give up the helm.

But a Japanese subsidiary? It’s highly unlikely that any US firms deal with it directly, and it is US players that would be subject to the “don’t do business with it” restrictions. A US guilty plea might lead Japanese players to shun it, but Japan is not big on written regulations, everything is done by administrative guidance. The Dealbook story reads as if this plea was cooked up among the DoJ, CFTC, and UBS, with no involvement of the Japanese. The apparent lack of consultation and the general “not invented here” factor means there are decent odds that the Japanese officials won’t discourage domestic players from doing business with UBS and will take the view that the negative press is a sufficient deterrent. By contrast, when Japanese regulators get tough, they don’t bother with niceties like guilt pleas. For instance, Japanese regulators forced Citigroup to exit the private banking business in Japan in 2004, forcing it to shutter branches. So it is also possible the Japanese will issue their own sanctions after they have read the Western regulatory releases.

Admittedly, the DoJ’s hands were somewhat tied by a conditional immunity deal on antitrust charges in return for cooperation. But the single charge levied against the Japanese operation was for mail fraud, which was presumably not part of the pact. But the cheerleading piece is straight dictation from the DoJ. The worst part of this that it has been so long since the agency has done anything meaningful on the financial front that they might honestly believe this is a serious sanction.

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24 comments

  1. Progressive Humanist

    What was that scandal that the GOP tried to take down Bill & Hillary before the lurid blue dress, Whitewater or something like that?

    Between UBS & HSBC, surely some of the $16-odd trillion transferred from the federal to the private sector under Obama found its way through those banks and their corrupt if not criminal adventures.

    Isn’t this propsect one of the unspoken reasons why DC is trying to force rape of social security on the public against its wishes, so that they can shift the burden onto the public and get back to business as usual?

    Can’t Obama see that they will come back looking to impeach him just as has always happened (not just to Dem presidents either)?

    As Sam Seder said to Matt Taibbi yesterday on the Majority Report, “the more things change, the more they stay the same!”

    This era will go down in history like the JFK assassination, never resolved to anyone’s satisfaction. These inquests will never go away, even if Social Security is whored out to Wall St in full daylight.

    1. Lady Liberty

      This say’s it all about obama you have to pay to play

      Five Senior Goldman Sachs Execs Gave $130K To ‘Obama Victory Fund’ WHILE Eric Holder Was Deciding Whether To File Criminal Charges

      http://dailybail.com/home/convicted-bush-1300-clinton-1000-obama-00.html

      I am amused that people are acting like O is finally getting tough on the banks roflmao UBS gave O’s buddy a hard time to me this is just a warning of what happens to those who don’t play by his Chi Town rules…

      Obama’s ‘Banker BFF’ Is Now Obama’s ‘Self-Employed Consultant BFF’

      Wolf is hanging his own shingle just a month after the Times reported that he had angered his bosses at UBS by golfing and going on vacation with the president.

      http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2012/07/obamas-banker-bff-leaves-ubs.html

      Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks at the UBS Press Conference

      “The company has agreed to plead guilty to this charge, to admit to its criminal conduct, and to pay a $100 million fine.”

      http://www.justice.gov/iso/opa/ag/speeches/2012/ag-speech-121219.html

      The Justice Department’s criminal division, which arranged the guilty plea and a $100 million fine from the Japanese subsidiary, also struck a non-prosecution agreement with the parent company. That deal included a $400 million fine.

      http://mobile.nytimes.com/dealbookarticle?articleId=545476

      Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac Libor Loss Tops $3 Billion in Audit

      http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-12-19/fannie-mae-freddie-mac-libor-loss-tops-3-billion-auditor-says.html

      Counterparites: 2012 — The year of bank fraud

      http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2012/12/19/counterparites-2012-the-year-of-bank-fraud/

      Barack’s Wall Street Problem is Now America’s

      http://www.noquarterusa.net/blog/4939/baracks-wall-street-problem-is-now-americas/

  2. David Egli

    Perhaps you should change “Barclays” in the 2nd. para. to “UBS”. I think you would be doing a service to both.

    1. LeeAnne

      Thank you for that link. Lawlessness inevitably involves killings. Killing instead of courts and a legitimate court system. I’ve said more than once that Elliot Spitzer, for instance, was lucky to be outed on sex that had legs in the media. Because otherwise, I believe , he would have been offed.

      The connection made in this article is chilling. It suggests organizations of killers with authority and technology beyond imagination.

    2. Norman

      I linked to your thread, interesting article. I wonder though, isn’t it possible that the two shooters aquired their ability from playing video games? After all, the U.S. troops in Iraq were playing such, whipping the local boys/men here in the states who were playing those war game[s] on line. Considering the proliferation and the amount of time played, the so-called expertise in using a weapon along with the lack of mental remorse, seems more rational than some conspiracy theory. But it is coincidental[?], that the two fathers share a common situation, especially in regards to their up-coming attendence before congress. Only a thought from this old man.

  3. Lucretius

    The average person might be forgiven for believing that this was just bank-on-bank S&M, so a pox on all their houses.

    However, Eurodollar futures (and the derivatives [bets] related to them) account for some $360 trillion in global trade. So, when these bank’s counter-parties entered into swap agreements – betting that interest rates would go down/up versus some fixed rate set forward in the contract UBS, Barclays et al made lots and lots and lots of money off the LIBOR rate being pushed in their favor by even just a few basis points.

    From a single contract volume of say 100 Billion – where the difference in the rates was a mere one basis point (0.0001%) – any bank in the know would have made around $2,500,000 off of a 3-month LIBOR (floating) rate (Gain = Volume Amount (fixed Rate – Floating Rate) days/360). And contracts such as these were transacted at an average a trillion dollars a day. A trillion, per day!

    Like alpha male jackals, the LIBOR scavengers fed not only off their own kind but any animal that so much as sniffed at the raw meat of an IMM swap – with everyone from the small community banks to pension funds to municipalities to mortgage payers, car loans, credit cards, and anything else affected by the cost of funds, being chewed up by interest rates.

    The USA; land of free market enterprise, equal justice for all , the land of opportunity and exemplar of all that’s right in the world. What can one do but express what is, inevitably, impotent rage against the machine? And, what an enormous fucking, cradle to grave joke we Americans play on ourselves; and how the rest of the world must laugh at our expense. WTF?

    1. brazza

      Lucretius – an average person thanks you for giving me some idea of the scale of fraud being discussed. Now … that kind of tiny percentage trick (so small to be undetectable but adding up to massive amounts) has been at the base of criminal fraud in a number of scams. I’m wondering if some of that lolly is bypassing bank accounting systems and trickling into some private accounts somewhere …

      1. DANNYBOY

        At Bankers Trust, we had one executive on the lam with $60 million. The entire purpose is to get the dough into private bank accounts. Remember, no one is doing this to enrich the shareholders.

  4. LeeAnne

    This GM “pre-market trading” is tiny compared to the LIBOR crimes so aptly described above. But not a stretch to view it as just one in a cess pool of Washington insider trading; giving ‘insider trading’ criminal penalties the smell of revenge rather than any kind of justice I’m familiar with.

    GM will pay $27.50 for each share, about an 8% premium over Tuesday’s closing price of $25.49. The shares shot up more than 8% in pre-market trading to $27.57.

    Guardian.

    Who are the insiders with the information to make such pre’market trades? Its a good example of how the public simply cannot participate in this market. But those Washington congress critters and hired help better watch their backs if the Newtown killings theory of a LIBOR connection has any credence.

    1. DANNYBOY

      “Who are the insiders…?”

      Here’s a tip. Whenever the secret phrase: “I will fucking do one humongous deal with you”, as captured in Yves’ post….then something is up.

  5. harry

    Trader Mark Hayes?

    Surely Trader Tom Hayes.

    And am I the only person here to have met him? I cant believe that cos Tom was the point person for UBS on Yen rates. He did LOTS of client meetings. Truth is I thought him very well briefed on his area.

    Harry

    1. craazyman

      Yeah, I noticed that too. Wouldn’t want a case of mistaken identity to go viral! Hopefully this can be corrected in the post.

      according to CNN: “The two UBS traders — Tom Alexander William Hayes, 33, of England, and Roger Darin, 41, of Switzerland — are currently abroad, and the U.S. will seek their extradition . . .”

      http://money.cnn.com/2012/12/19/news/companies/ubs-libor-us-fine/index.html?section=money_latest

      should be “Tom Hayes” presumably.

  6. mitchw

    Did the manipulation of LIBOR around 2008 mislead regulators like Paulson, staring at his Bloomberg, into misjudging the health of the big banks? I don’t want to think this.

    1. DANNYBOY

      Dear mitchw,

      I wish I could tell you that it wasn’t so, but I can’t.

      Just take it easy.

      Sort of, one day at a time.

      Rest

  7. DANNYBOY

    Yves, you’ve done it again.

    I guess I missed this in Econned (I was seeing red, while reading), but your words: “maximizing current extractable value” are PERFECT.

    I, naively found myself discussing “maximizing shareholder value” with my boss; the President of a WS firm, some years ago. He vehemently attacked my principled stance. Went so far as to invite in other of his direct reports to witness the dress down.

    I of course took note, even noting that all of our shareholders were the other WS firms, and, of course not one of them were expecting us to be “maximizing shareholder value”.

    Guess “maximizing shareholder value” sounded ridiculous to the lot of them. “Maximizing current extractable value” is much sexier.

    I probably could have ended up President if I’d used that phrase instead.

      1. DANNYBOY

        craazyman,

        After reading my comments for a while now, tell me…how’s my droning?

        You know, it’s a skill that requires honing.

        Honing droning.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      That does not originate with me, but from George Akerlof and Paul Romer in their 1993 paper on looting, hence the quotation marks. The chapter itself discusses the paper at some length.

  8. Hiram Bilgewater

    From JFK to UBS, we have human slime of great pedigree calling the shots, bringing in the “Cubans” for their wet jobs. Watergate call girl rings, ringworm, E. Howard Hunt. Covington & Burling. Ooey Gooey. — Hiram

  9. harry

    Incidentally, UBS hasnt shut down its fixed income business. Its shut down its fixed income credit business.

    That will teach those eurobond jockeys for messing with Libor (errrr)

  10. DANNYBOY

    Just don’t let the bankers anywhere near that house in Hanover, Massachusetts. There are some real fascinating things going on with that.

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