Friday, 6 July 2012

Are They Human, or Are They Bankers?

Tony Robinson raised that question on Question Time last week. Although he gets a couple of facts wrong (e.g. bailouts were billions, not millions) his stinging litany of Bankers' greed leading up to 2008 and the aftermath makes for sober listening.

However, the latest scandal involving Barclays Libor rates appears to have the previous Labour Government possibly implicated. Based on the evidence I can muster though I don't think that really makes sense. Here's why:

Banks make short-term (daily-ish) loans to each other to cover short-falls in each others' reserves. The largest 8 banks publish the rates they have to pay when they take a loan of this kind and the middle 6 are used to derive what is called the Libor rate. The scandal is that Barclays' fiddled their published Libor rate after late October 2008 to, 2010 (or was it 2009)?

However, Barclays now claim that they only manipulated it because they'd heard that senior Whitehall figures were concerned about their Libor rate being in the top quartile or decile. This is how the history pans out:

Before October 8, 2008

This Guardian article gives the sequence of events, but you'll need to start at the bottom. HBOS crashes 34% on Sep 15 as Lehman Brothers employees are turfed out of Canary Wharf. Barclays seals deal Lehman assets on Sep 16 while HBOS shares crash to 88p. Sep 17, Libor hits a 7-year high; Lloyd takes over HBOS for £12.2bn while Morgan Stanley crashes 30% (and turns into a non-investment bank 5 days later). Sep 25: Bradford & Bingley let go of 350 staff (later bought by Santander) and HBSC axes 500 a day later. By Sep 29, RBS are down 20% Barclays another 9% and Libor goes 'through the roof'. Just before October 8, Icesave goes into default and then the UK government announce their rescue package.

Barclays Libor During The Rescue Package

The UK Government's bank rescue package provided £500bn for a number of major banks and of the major ones, only Barclays declined to get involved, despite them having shrunk pretty much as much as Lloyds.

 Barclays needed a cash injection of 6.5bn, but they chose to get it privately. Now, if we switch to looking at their Libor graph over the period:
 To my mind the first oddity is that their Libor had been rising in Mid-september, but goes lower at the point where they decide to buy Lehman Bros assets before shooting back up by about the 20th. I'm not sure if that makes complete sense. The Libor rate reflects the insecurity of the bank - why would it go down if they buy the assets of a bankrupt company?

Their Libor then climbs sharply (along with other banks) through to the bailout on October 8; drops briefly and then continues to rise to the end of October. Now, I would be pretty sure that there would be civil servants in Whitehall who would be monitoring the Libor of particular banks - because given their prior financing behaviour, it would not be unexpected for them to engage in financial cover-ups. Barclays figured it needed a small fraction of other major banks (6.5bn), but would finance it privately so it was claiming it's finances were secure. However, their increasing Libor implies they aren't.

The question is, does it make sense for Labour to push Barclays into artificially lowering its Libor rate given that it was willing to bailout Barclays a month before (Barclays 6.5bn would have been 1.2% of the overall bailout)? My thinking is it wouldn't make sense: it'd make more sense for Labour to push Barclays into joining the bailout.

On the other hand, would it make sense for Barclays to not want the UK government (and by that token the UK tax-payer) to part-own Barclays? Yes, that would make sense.

Would it make sense for Whitehall to be concerned about Barclays Libor figures? Yes, given the financial situation at the time, yes it'd make sense.

One further thing to note; by artificially lowering Barclays Libor rate to a negative one, doesn't that mean that Barclays would be effectively gaining money on inter-bank lending? Money that had come from the UK government bailout? At the time, note that Barclays justified its financial security by arguing that it would raise £7.3bn via its Middle East investments (Guardian, October 31, 2008), but its Libor rate had started falling 2 days before.