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The European Union Catches the Banks Holding Hands

Bob Diamond

By J. Iddhis Bing

Where’s Bob Diamond Now?

Early in the summer of 2012, Bob Diamond was an American banker with a talent for making numbers say what he wanted them to say. He was legit and was sitting in the catbird seat at Barclays Bank UK. He’d made $100 million over the previous six years.

A few weeks later, in early July, the world had flipped. Instead of sitting at his desk at Barclays Diamond was answering questions from a Parliamentary committee investigating LIBOR rate-fixing in 2008. A week after that he was out of work.

What’s LIBOR? The London Interbank Offered Rate measures the price at which banks lend currencies to each other. It gauges how much banks charge each other when they carry out interbank trades and it affects the rates businesses and households all over the world pay on loans and other financial products.

Diamond lost his job and Barclays was fined £290m. It was the financial scandal of the summer. Some say of the century, but we’ve got plenty of time to go yet.

July, 2012 was just the first act. The European Union wasn’t asleep at the wheel and started to investigate two other currency markets, the EURIBOR and the Yen LIBOR. They took their time and announced their findings two days ago. It turns out to be a good deal more serious than having to sweat through a rough morning in Parliament. Barclays got off with a £290m penalty in 2012 for their bad behavior. Maybe that wiped out a quarter or a half year’s earnings, and brought them some bad publicity. They found a way to dodge the bullet this time.

On Wednesday it was Joaquín Almunia’s job to announce EU charges against the banks involved. Almunia is the European Commission Vice-President in charge of competition policy. He stood behind the podium in Brussels looking like the stern accountant with the big glasses who comes in to set things straight after the wild party’s over. The European Commission was going to levy €1.7bn in fines on seven banks and a brokerage firm for their roles in the worldwide interest rate manipulation. Banks named were Barclays, UBS, the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS, bailed out at taxpayer expense), Deutsche Bank, Société Générale and two American banks, Citigroup and JP Morgan. A brokerage house, RP Martin, is in the mix, too. They’re contesting the charges and the fine. The tables with the damages, courtesy the EC, are included here as illustrations.

For its part of the deal, RBS will pay another £300m on top of the £390m it has already paid to US and UK regulators. RBS is a nationalized bank. That means English taxpayers will pick up the tab for the bank’s behavior.

Barclays was the first bank caught in the sting back in 2012. They knew which way the wind was blowing. They decided to cut a deal: by exposing the cartel in Euribor rate-fixing they avoided an additional £570m fine. Swiss bank UBS was spared a £2bn fine by doing the same for the rigging of yen interest rates. A cartel? The banks were working together? This is where things get interesting. [cont’d.]

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