Traders at the venerable Royal Bank of Scotland were so blatant about rigging benchmark interest rates for nearly five years that they bragged about it in e-mails and Internet chat rooms.
In one instance, a senior trader at RBS told another, “it’s just amazing how [rate] fixing can make you that much money; it’s a cartel now in London.” Even a manager, at one point, admitted that “pure manipulation” was at work.
Damning exchanges like these between dozens of employees at the nearly 300-year-old bank were detailed in the Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s (CFTC) enforcement order Wednesday that fingers RBS as a culprit in the rate-fixing scandal involving Libor, which serves as a standard interest rate for loans between banks and as a benchmark for more than $360 trillion in lending to businesses and consumers.
The bank has agreed to pay U.S. and British authorities a total of $612 million.
Critics of the Libor system say there is not enough transparency in how banks set their daily rates, which leaves the process open to fraud. Regulators on both sides of the Atlantic are considering ways to improve the system, although much of the world’s financial markets continue to use the rate.
Barclays was the first bank to ‘fess up to its role in rigging the rates in June, when it agreed to pay $450 million to settle allegations.
Swiss banking giant UBS followed its lead in December by reaching a $1.5 billion settlement with global authorities, which included the indictment of two of its traders and a guilty plea by its Japanese subsidiary.
As part of the RBS deal, the bank’s Japanese subsidiary pleaded guilty to criminal charges of wire fraud while the parent company entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. Justice Department. No individuals have been indicted.
Justice has faced intense scrutiny of its handling of financial firms accused of breaking the law as no senior bank executives have faced jail time.
“Companies are happy to enter into these deferred prosecution agreements because it’s become so commonplace now,” said Michael Clark, a former federal prosecutor who now works at the Duane Morris law firm. “They take a bath in the press for a finite period of time. The stock markets don’t even seem to punish them.”
Justice spokeswoman Rebekah Carmichael said the agreement reached with RBS “does not preclude the department from bringing charges against individuals in the future.” She would not disclose whether the agency plans to indict any RBS traders, but noted that some are accused of the same behavior as the two UBS traders who are facing criminal charges.
RBS admits to scheming to manipulate rates, either keeping them artificially high or low, to increase profits from its derivatives and money market trading activities as far back as 2006.
Authorities say that about 21 RBS traders around the world engaged in this illegal activity, even after they learned that regulators were investigating Libor in 2010.
“It is amazing that RBS employees tried to fly above the law. They acted as if they were the masters of the universe and the rules of fair play just didn’t apply,” said Bart Chilton, a commissioner at the CFTC. The commission was the first to uncover evidence that something was amiss with the rates going as far back as 2005.
Authorities say RBS was part of a larger conspiracy to fiddle with Libor and the Euro interbank offered rate, or Euribor. Traders at the bank worked in concert with their counterparts at UBS to manipulate the Swiss franc Libor, according to the CFTC order.
More than a dozen banks involved in submitting data to set the daily Libor rate, including Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Deutsche Bank, are being investigated by regulators.
RBS agreed to pay $325 million to the commission and another $137 million to Britain’s Financial Service Authority for its actions. The bank will also hand over $150 million to the Justice Department.
In an apologetic statement, RBS Chairman Philip Hampton called it “a sad day” for the bank and acknowledged that “there were serious shortcomings in our systems and controls and also in the integrity of a small group of our employees.”
All 21 employees implicated in the investigation have either faced disciplinary action or have left the bank without a bonus and had to surrender any outstanding past bonus awards.
The head of the markets and international banking division, John Hourican, has also resigned.
While officials at RBS say Hourican had no knowledge of the rate-rigging scheme, his departure is the bank’s acknowledgment that management failed to detect the problem.
“We have to fix the culture in the banking industry,” Hampton said.
“The most important part of that is . . . acting with integrity. And it also involves facing up to the Bank’s past failings, no matter how uncomfortable that is.”