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Archive for the ‘Libor’ Category

A year ago we posted a number of predictions for 2013 and many proved accurate. One area in particular may be taking a significant turn for the better.

Our predictions for 2013 were:

Rebekah Brooks will go to trial. JPMorgan will further increase its reserve for bad trades by “The Whale.” No one in the investment banking industry will go to jail for anything other than insider trading. Goldman Sachs will continue to be bad. The global economy will continue to improve. Slowly. More dirt will come out regarding Walmart’s non-US operations. Somewhere in the US a bank will go under.

And there will be at least one big sex scandal.

What Did We See In 2013?

Ms. Brooks is on trial, JPMorgan did have greater Whale damage (along with several other huge financial settlements related to its business practices and flawed oversight), and several people are going to jail or being strongly pursued over insider trading. I won’t comment on the moral state of GS. The global economy has survived and is improving. Slowly. And without doing the research I am quite certain that at least one US bank somewhere was taken over by the FDIC.

I missed on Walmart’s non-US operations and a big sex scandal.

Yet the most significant change by far in terms of the financial industry is that the SEC, under new leadership, appears to have become more dedicated to putting some people in jail.

At the end of November 2012, SEC chairwoman Mary Schapiro left that office and was replaced in mid December 2012 by Elisse Walter, an SEC commissioner. Walter was an appointment by the president, who then nominated Mary Jo White as the chair. White was confirmed by the Senate and was sworn in on April 10, 2013.

Chairwoman White lost no time in tackling the challenge of prosecuting people in the financial industry. On April 22nd she named George Canellos and Andrew Ceresney Co-Directors of the agency’s Division of Enforcement. Canellos had been Deputy Director and then Acting Director of the division. Per the agency’s press release, Ceresney “served as a Deputy Chief Appellate Attorney in the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, where he was a member of the Securities and Commodities Fraud Task Force and the Major Crimes Unit. As a prosecutor, Mr. Ceresney handled numerous white collar criminal investigations, trials and appeals, including matters relating to securities fraud, mail and wire fraud, and money laundering.”

In particular White appears not interested in settlements that involve a fine with no admission of wrong doing. On her way in the door she got the board of the SEC to overturn a settlement with a hedge fund manager that included a no admission of wrong doing. Soon after, the individual involved signed a new settlement in which he admitted to most of the agency’s charges.  Later in the year, JPMorgan Chase reached its first settlement under the new leadership and it too included an admission of violating certain securities laws.

An article by Sheelah Kolhatkar in Bloomberg’s Business Week in mid October recaps this sea change and quotes Mr. Dennis Kelleher, president of Better Markets. “Mary Jo White has clearly changed the tone, and what she’s had to say is encouraging to anybody who wants the SEC to not only be successful, but be restored to its storied place as a protector of investors and markets.”

That’s the real story for investors coming out of 2013 and we look forward to more significantly stronger settlements in the year ahead.

Why this is important

Readers of this blog know that when it comes to ethical business behavior there is one key element that so often is overlooked to our detriment: the impact of corporate and industry culture on individual behavior. In the investment banking industry we have seen a cross company, industry level trading culture that has not only violated any sense of fair play and decency but has had tremendous real dollar impact on the global economy and investors’ trust. Alleged collusion on Libor rates was topped by collusion on foreign currency exchanges. Highly risky collateralized debt obligations were packaged and sold while the bankers made mockery of their  clients and customers. Massive bets were placed on global interest rates in a game of “top gun” between traders in different organizations.

This environment at an industry level makes it difficult for a CEO such as Jamie Dimon to totally manage his organization’s (and shareholders’ and customers’) risk. Mr. Dimon is doing all the right things in coming to relatively quick settlements and pledging to install new processes and oversight within his bank. I respect what he is doing. Yet until the industry as a whole changes its macho/top gun culture we global citizens are  not safe.

If there is one way to change that macho/top gun culture it is to prosecute, convict and sentence to jail a sufficient number of egregious individuals that the investment banking and trading community sobers up.

 

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Jamie Dimon, CEO and Chairman of JPMorgan Chase, may be facing three whales instead of two.

For much of 2012, Mr. Dimon was a financial media star. While other big banks were embroiled with the fall-out of the mortgage loan / CDO disaster, Jamie was heralded as the one banker who focused closely on risk management and had managed risk successfully.

Then came the first Whale. The so-called London Whale was at the trading desk inside the bank’s Chief Investment Office, the very office whose responsibility it was to manage the risk of the bank’s investments. The trading loss incurred by that one trader ended up a bit north of $6 Billion-with-a-B dollars.

Now Jamie is facing a second Whale as the CEO is negotiating a $13 Billion-with-a-B settlement with the US government related to mortgage fraud. Reports out this past week have indicated that Mr. Dimon personally negotiated this deal with the Attorney General and was attempting to get a settlement that closed the door on any criminal investigation of the bank. The fact that he eventually elected to pay such a high price in the settlement while not obtaining release from potential criminal charges is significant.

Mr. Dimon is an accomplished CEO and experienced risk manager. The reported settlement would lead one to surmise that Mr. Dimon believed there was a measurable risk that failure to settle would lead to even greater cost, greater than $13 Billion. The continued attempt to close the door on criminal investigations by the US government may be more than just an attempt to close the case so the bank can move on.

My bet is that there is one more whale of size. Stay tuned.

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News of the World Still Making News

Rupert Murdoch may have shut down his phone hacking London tabloid, but that hasn’t stopped it from generating news. This month’s stories include:

  • Parent company News Corp. named a new person to its Board of Directors – Mr. Alvaro Uribe, a former president of Columbia. Appropriately enough Mr. Uribe’s former chief of staff was arrested last year in connection with a case involving illegal wiretapping.
  • A number of prominent individuals have recently filed their own lawsuits seeking damages for the alleged hacking of their own phones. Among the names are Neil Kinnock, former head of Britain’s Labour Party, Stephen Byers, a former cabinet minister, and an assortment of actors and other celebrities.  A total of 53 new claims were submitted earlier this month bringing the total to 174.

News in the World of Banking

  • JPMorgan Chase may have been recently added to the list of banks included in the Iran money laundering investigation.
  • JPMorgan is also facing growing pressure in the US Senate regarding the losses in its risk management operation.
  • Freddie Mac stands to recover several $ Billion-with-a-B from various banks which had entered into mortgage repurchase agreements with Freddie Mac.
  • And then there was/is Lehman Brothers. Remember those guys? Well what’s left of their company has just sued JPMorgan Chase for over $ 2 Billion related to derivatives obligations. Lehman is also fighting JPMChase over the $ 6 Billion the big bank claims they are owed by Lehman.
  • And last but not least in the world of banking, a report just out from Better Markets claims that Americans have lost a total of $12.8 TRILLION since the collapse of Lehman Brothers.
  • In the meantime, asset manager Blackrock was fined $ 15 million by a UK regulatory agency for not following certain rules aimed at protecting investors’ money in the event that Blackrock went under.

Observation: Every piece of harm the banking industry has done ends up being an aggregate multi-billion loss for investors and consumers. Every successful prosecution ends up with a multi-million dollar fine and no one going to jail. What’s wrong with this picture?

Justice in the News

  • Stanford Financial’s former chief investment officer, Laura Pendergest Holt, was sentenced to three years in prison for her involvement in the Houston company’s multi-year ponzi operation.
  • A whistle-blower who testified against UBS was awarded $104 million by a federal court. The case was a significant test of the government’s ability to successfully award individual whistle-blowers. The particular case involved UBS’ alleged attempts to entice US citizens to evade taxes. UBS had settled with the US by paying $780 million to avoid being prosecuted.

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Money Laundering for Iran

It’s late August. Even the financial news takes a vacation. So of course it was a quiet couple of weeks with little news on Libor, the JPMorgan Chase hedge unit, News of the World or even Chesapeake. Government investigations likely continue their steady grind behind the curtain. Meanwhile both Tampa and New Orleans braced themselves for Isaac.

But wait, there was one new story of note: Laundries. Our own family has two laundries. One isn’t that great but it does a decent job with the standard business shirt for a reasonable price. The other is where we take our nicer outfits to be dry cleaned. It appears that Iran might have copied that model as several banks stand accused of laundering Iranian money on its way to and from the U.S. That would be illegal, due to the current international sanctions against Iran.

Standard Chartered

The story was just breaking in our last post when UK’s Standard Chartered was accused by the New York State Department of Financial Services with allegedly laundering $250 BILLION for Iran through its New York branch. The next week, Standard Chartered was reported working on a $340 Million deal with New York State allowing it to continue to operate in New York. The deal was completed, but only after their CEO left his vacation early (bummer!) to head directly to the US to negotiate.  Standard Chartered still has to face several US Federal agencies.

Standard Chartered was also sued by the estates of military personnel killed in Lebanon in 1983 on the basis that the bank had concealed its Iranian money at the time the plaintiffs won a suit against Iran in connection with the tragedy.

Deutsche Bank and RBS

Several days later, Deutsche Bank was named as an additional target of Iran money laundering investigators.

Not to be outdone by the Germans, the Royal Bank of Scotland was also cited as a target in the investigation.

Facebook

While apparently innocent in terms of Iran, Facebook’s iPO debacle continued to spew out more stories. One of its prominent directors dumped a reported $$ Billion-With-a-B in stock as soon as his restrictions in selling had lapsed. And the COO reportedly let out to an investor that the $38/share IPO value had been determined in part based on what it would take to deter Wall Street traders from simply flipping the stock. You mean it had nothing to do with the company’s actual value?? Unbelievable.

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Libor

JPMorgan Chase may be facing inquiries from up to eleven different government agencies regarding its role in the Libor rate setting scandal.

The managing director of the U.K.’s Financial Services Authority stated last week that the Libor “is no longer fit for purpose.” He is pushing for it to be replaced with alternative indices. The Reuters article implies that other indices used in commodities and stocks may also be “under scrutiny.” This will surely be grist for the mill in the courthouse where lawsuits are already being filed from plaintiffs who believe their Libor based interest rates were calculated incorrectly. It also raises the question of legitimacy on any existing contract that is Libor based. This one is going to go on for a long time with many interesting and significant repercussions.

Standard Chartered

Standard Chartered is a great name for a UK bank, isn’t it? The name just feels old, stable, conservative…. all the things you would want in a bank. Now the New York State Department of Financial Services has a hotshot young regulator who is threatening to revoke Standard Chartered’s “charter” to operate in New York on the basis that the bank allegedly laundered $250 BILLION-with-a-B for Iran through its New York branch.

Goldman

Goldman Sachs has escaped prosecution by the Justice Department for its actions related to packaging mortgages and reselling them as collateralized debt. The feds felt they didn’t have enough evidence to win the case. Sigh.

NewsCorp

News Corporation announced a $1.6 Billion-with-a-B LOSS for the most recent fiscal quarter, primarily a result of write-downs related to the restructuring of its businesses around the world. That restructuring was announced following the phone hacking scandal at News of the World in London which has resulted in Murdoch’s protege Rebekah Brooks being formally charged in criminal court. However there have also been significant charges related to restructuring initiatives underway in the company’s Australian businesses.

Chesapeake Energy

Chesapeake, the scandal that keeps on giving future case studies, was in the news first for being served subpoenas in a US anti-trust probe and then for facing financial challenges in selling its Michigan properties, which are the subject of said investigation.

Facebook

The Facebook saga continues as a lower price for its stock is causing the company to face significant challenges. Key personnel have been leaving for new opportunities, a possible sign of loss of faith in the company’s further upside potential. The company faces a $3 BILLION tax bill springing from its extensive employee stock plan. At the same time, shares that had been acquired on the private market pre-IPO will soon be able to be traded on the public market. Welcome to the real world. They obviously didn’t learn any lessons from GE which makes billions in profit without paying a dime in federal taxes. Facebook got it backwards – are they making any profits at all and yet have a billion dollar tax bill? No wonder I need a CPA to put my return together.

Knight Trading

Knight Capital Group Inc. announced that its after-tax losses on its trading glitch could amount to $270 million. Good Night.

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Libor

The Libor scandal has continued to evolve, with US Federal subpoenas now issued to Bank of America while Deutsche Bank admitted that some of its personnel were involved. Citibank continues to be rumored as a target of investigation. Lloyds of London received legal inquiries from the UK government.

Lawsuits are starting to be filed, as Libor was a benchmark rate for numerous types of financial instruments. Among possible plaintiffs are city, state and county governments, mortgage holders, pension funds and brokerage services. In almost all cases, plaintiffs will allege they lost money by paying higher rates than they should have. Yet in spite of the wide-ranging impact of this scandal, its potential to further tarnish the investment banking industry and its direct and indirect impact on everyday citizens, the amount of coverage by the major media networks‘ nightly news hours has evidently been dismal.

Meanwhile, Barclays apologized for its role in the Libor scandal while simultaneously announcing a $6.6 Billion profit. No mention of refunds to those injured by the rigging of this “free market” rate.

UBS

A former UBS mortgage securities strategist has claimed that he was pressured into filing “misleading reports.” In another case, a trio of ex-UBS personnel have been accused of rigging the bid process for certain municipal bonds. And in yet one more UBS item, the bank reported losing $350 million largely due to the results of Nasdaq’s glitch in the Facebook IPO. Nasdaq is offering up only $62 million so watch for a lawsuit there.

Facebook

Speaking of Facebook, their shares dropped another 4% on Thursday (August 2nd) as more of their top executives departed. Recall that there are ethical issues related to their IPO as potentially negative financial information was released to a select group of investors but not the general public just prior to the IPO.

News Corp.
Rebekah Brooks, formerly Editor of News of the World and a Rupert Murdoch protege, was formally charged with “unlawfully intercepting voice-mail messages.”
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But Wait, There Is One Good Guy Left
On the other hand, in Japan the CEO of Nomura, one of that nation’s largest banks, resigned because some of his employees were involved in an insider trading scandal. If only all of the bank executives were Japanese.

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Libor is the London Interbank Offering Rate. It is an interest rate that is used between banks as they lend each other funds. It is a “free market” rate that has been used as a starting point for variable rate mortgages (based on Libor plus some number), rates for borrowings by municipalities and over $360 TRILLION-with-a-T in financial and derivative contracts. (Hmmm, isn’t that more than the combined GDP of all the world’s countries? Would that bring us down?)

Libor is calculated using estimates from the banks and it is those estimates that were, how shall we say this, allegedly fudged.

Last week a growing global gasp could be heard as we have learned that London’s Barclays has settled an accusation of having manipulated that rate, paying a fine of $450 Million. We then learned that potentially a dozen other large banks in North America and Europe may be under investigation. Banks may include Citigroup, Inc., Royal Bank of Scotland and Deutsche Bank. The manipulation of this rate apparently was going on before and just prior to the near global financial melt-down of 2008.

The story continued with word that Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geitner, who was head of the NY Fed during that timeframe, was potentially aware of issues with the setting of Libor and advised the British on what to do to get the situation under control. In the UK, the scandal has included allegations that the Bank of England’s deputy governor may have known but not taken action.

Ethical Analysis

The Law was broken. That’s not my personal opinion, it’s obviously the conclusion of more three-letter government enforcement agencies in the US, UK and elsewhere than can be listed here. They undoubtedly set Barclays up with a plea deal so that they can go on from there to the other banks that may have been involved. Congressional representatives are already calling for anyone involved to be prosecuted. Over the weekend the New York Times reported that the US is considering criminal charges against some banks and their employees.

Contracts and agreements were not honored. That IS my opinion and the supporting evidence is only just starting to come forth. Several municipalities are considering suing because the interest payments on their loans may have been higher than justified. They argue that they have been forced to cut their budgets to support those rates.

The community expectation of fair play was violated. When the investing public, would be mortgage holders, municipalities in need of lines of credit and other financing all have an expectation that the Libor rate is a free market rate, then manipulation of that rate by the investment banking industry which is often on the other side of the loans is clearly a violation of the standard of fair play.

Professional standards were ignored. We had expected that everyone in the investment banking industry upheld a minimum of professional ethical conduct standards. Financial advisors should be giving their clients objective analytical based recommendations. Institutions whom we entrust with our money should safeguard it from recklessness and be prudent in its management. Investment banks we might invest in as shareholders should be transparent about their business and its risks. The Libor scandal is just one of a series of continued ethical breaches by this entire industry. It is long past time to call them out.

Moral and spiritual values have been disregarded.

The true ethical issue is this: the banks believe the money is theirs, the traders think the money is theirs, and the individuals making trades think that the level of risk they successfully take with the money that is not theirs to begin with is a game to play that enables them to personally be rewarded, satisfy their ego and prove they are the biggest Whale in the sea.

The money is NOT theirs. It belongs to shareholders, depositors, pension funds and retirees. As the source of accumulated capital that drives the world economy it is a tool that can be used to the benefit of all and a hammer that can be used to dash the lives of many.

The banking industry still does not get this, as I pointed out when I tweeted this quote from one Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs: “If you put too much penalty on risk judgment, what kind of world are you going to have?”  We already know the kind of world we do have – one in which too much risk judgment takes place without, up till now, much in penalties. Perhaps we need to take fewer risks while in the process of “risk management.”

Yet to be determined is the potential impact this alleged rate fixing among the banks may have had on the overall global economy. If the rates were lower than market reality leading up to the crash, which is where the facts seem to be pointed, then a bank could lend more money than it otherwise would have been able, thereby contributing to the bubble.

Bottom Line:

The banking industry’s imprudence with the money entrusted to it, the resultant hardship and harm that has been inflicted on so many around the world and the inability of industry personnel to recognize the culpability of their firms and themselves in the global recession, coupled with their lack of regard for those who have been hurt is at odds with any true spiritual principle I am aware of.

Other Assessments: Two other interesting opinions on the ethics of the investment banking industry are

“Wall Street Ethics Codes Make Me Want to Inhale” by Susan Antilla of Bloomberg News

“The Market Has Spoken, and It Is Rigged” by Simon Johnson, Professor of Entrepreneurship, M.I.T. Sloan School

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