The Libor Scandal: What's Next?

The London Interbank Offered Rate (Libor) is calculated daily by the British Banking Association (BBA) and published by Thomson Reuters. The rates are calculated by surveying the interbank borrowing costs of a panel of banks and averaging them to create an index of 15 separate Libor rates for different maturities (ranging from overnight to one year) and currencies. The Libor rate is used to calculate interest rates in an estimated $350 trillion worth of transactions worldwide.

The Libor Scandal

The surveyed banks are not required to provide actual borrowing costs. Rather, they are asked only for estimates of how much peer financial institutions would charge them to borrow on a given day. Because they are not required to substantiate their estimates, banks have been accused of Libor “fixing,” or manipulating the Libor rate by submitting estimates that are exaggeratedly higher or lower than their true borrowing costs. This scandal has resulted in the firing and even arrest of bank employees.

Libor’s reputation came under fire in June 2012 when Barclays PLC agreed to pay over $450 million to settle allegations that some traders fixed their reported rates to increase profits and make the bank appear healthier than it was during the financial crisis. In the wake of this settlement, investigative agencies around the world began to look deeper into Libor rate fixing, leading to a $750 million settlement by the Royal Bank of Scotland and a record-setting $1.5 billion settlement by UBS AG. To date, there have been over $2.5 billion in settlements, with many more investigations ongoing. One investment bank estimates that, in total, legal settlements could amount to as much as $35 billion by the time investigations conclude.

Replacing the Libor

In the wake of the Libor scandal, international and domestic agencies have advocated for its replacement. The BBA, the group responsible for setting Libor since the 1980s, voted to relinquish that authority, and a committee of the UK's Financial Reporting Council is currently vetting bids from other independent agencies interested in administering the new rate.

The International Organization of Securities Commissions (IOSCO) Task Force on Benchmark Rates, led by the head of the UK Financial Services Authority Martin Wheatley and the US Futures Trading Commission Chairman Gary Gensler, released a report last month saying that the new system should be based on data from actual trades in order to restore creditability. Wheatley and Gensler agree on the need to create a transaction-based rate, but disagree on how to transition from Libor to the new system.

Wheatley proposes that: the estimate-based Libor system be kept in place while a new transaction based rate is introduced to run alongside it under a "dual-track" system (so as to avoid disrupting existing transactions), and that the decision as to if and when to abandon Libor be left to market participants as opposed to regulators.

Gensler proposes a wholesale replacement of Libor as soon as possible and cautions that its continued use undermines market integrity and threatens financial stability.

IOSCO is also pushing for a code of conduct that would hold banks to a higher standard of honesty in reporting and setting index rates, while other agencies, including the Financial Stability Board and the European Union, are working on the development of other potential solutions including stricter regulations and greater penalties for rate-fixing conduct.

The future of Libor is unclear, but it is certain that whomever is chosen to replace the BBA will be under immense pressure and scrutiny from the international financial community.

Recommendations

To stay prepared, parties to financial transactions should view existing and future contracts with an eye towards potential benchmark changes. Parties should perform contractual due diligence to establish the range of Libor definitions and benchmarks to which they are exposed. In addition, parties should review the fallback provisions dealing with change or discontinuance of Libor and other benchmark rates to understand the potential impact of such changes.

Going forward, parties should include fallback provisions in their contracts to allocate risk and set up alternatives to mitigate the uncertainty that could arise in the event of any changes to the Libor system or other relevant benchmarks.