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Damages From Libor Could Reach Tens of Billions

Libor has sort of faded into the background as an issue because of the salience of the political campaign, but investors burned by the rate-rigging scandal still see it as a fertile opportunity to collect. That’s probably the extent of the damage that the banks will feel for rigging the benchmark interest rate, but some predict multi-billion-dollar awards.

The scandal over global interest rates has state officials like Janet Cowell of North Carolina working intensely behind the scenes to build a case for suing the nation’s largest banks.

Ms. Cowell, the state’s elected treasurer, and several of her staff members have spent the summer combing through the state’s investments trying to determine how much the state may have lost because of suspected manipulation of the London interbank offered rate, or Libor, which is used as a benchmark for trillions of dollars of financial contracts around the world.

“We think this could be as big as the mortgage crisis settlement, that this could be a really high impact situation and that we should be aggressive on this,” Ms. Cowell said, referring to the $25 billion settlement that the nation’s biggest banks entered with state attorneys general.

We know that, in relative terms, $25 billion was a relative pittance in the foreclosure fraud settlement, especially when you consider that banks get credit for things they would have done anyway. But it is a chunk of change, nonetheless, and at least some state Treasurers and state Attorneys General thinks they can match it with the Libor scandal.

How they will calculate this is the $64,000 question. I can see how cities who entered into interest-rate swap deals and public pension entities can prove losses. I’m a bit less certain on states, although they certainly get financing from the market to handle short-term cash flow and the like. That’s probably where we’ll see state Treasurers like Cowell get involved (in North Carolina, the state pension plan is overseen by the Treasurer, making this several sides of the same coin, perhaps). Maybe we’ll discover just how many states used these interest rate-swap deals along with the municipalities. If those were made politically toxic I think the whole nation would benefit.

We’re at the stage of the negotiations where the AGs are conferring with one another before they get in a room with the banks and cut a deal. So the actual numbers may end up quite a bit lower.

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David Dayen

David Dayen