Wall Street Banks Manipulated LIBOR In Rigging Us Treasury Auctions (#GotBitcoin?)
The antitrust probe was focused on whether Goldman Sachs traders colluded with others to fix prices in the $13 trillion Treasurys market. Wall Street Banks Manipulated LIBOR In Rigging Us Treasury Auctions (#GotBitcoin?)
Why Ditching Libor Is Vexing The Financial World
Declaring an end to Libor is one thing, making it happen another altogether. The deadline to drop the discredited London interbank offered rate is approaching at the end of 2021, leaving the financial world scrambling to adjust contracts on hundreds of trillions of dollars’ worth of products, from mortgages and credit cards to derivatives.
The risk of a chaotic transition has been likened to Y2K and the fear of computer systems misfiring at the end of the last millennium, only with the added challenge of a global pandemic thrown in. Whether the outcome will be as benign as Y2K turned out for the financial industry is about to unfold.
1. What’s The Worry?
As much as half of the outstanding Libor-priced contracts expire after the deadline. That means the clock is ticking to switch those agreements — often termed “legacy contracts” — to non-Libor rates. The process has been delayed somewhat by the pandemic, while the sheer breadth and scale of Libor’s use means that multiple industries and regulators are having to adjust.
In practice, some are doing so with more urgency than others.
2. What Is Libor And Why Is It Disappearing?
For about 50 years, Libor has helped determine the cost of borrowing around the world. It is a daily average of what banks say they would have to pay to borrow from one another and forms the basis for floating-rate or variable loans and bonds, as well as derivatives.
The London-based British Bankers’ Association formalized the gauge in 1986 when it needed a way to price interest-rate swaps and syndicated loans. But as markets evolved, the trading that helped inform banks’ estimates dried up. And ever since evidence emerged in 2008 that European and U.S. lenders had manipulated rates to benefit their own portfolios, the benchmark has been seen as tainted. By the end of 2016, a dozen banks had paid penalties approaching $10 billion.
3. Who Cares?
Lots of people do. They include pension and fund managers, insurance companies, lenders big and small and Wall Street banks that package loans into securities. Equipment leases, commercial paper, sovereign bonds, student and auto loans, bank deposits and mortgages are among the $370 trillion of financial products that the International Swaps and Derivatives Association says are tied to Libor and related interbank rates. The biggest use is for derivatives like interest-rate swaps, which companies, banks and investors use to hedge risk or to speculate.
4. What’s Taking Libor’s Place?
Central banks have been working to develop replacement benchmarks based on what are called risk-free rates. The goal is to find rates that are a truer reflection of the cost of capital, and are based on actual transactions.
The upshot is an array of acronyms with varying degrees of catchiness, including the U.S.’s Secured Overnight Financing Rate (SOFR), the U.K.’s Sterling Overnight Index Average (Sonia) and the Euro Short-Term Rate (ESTR).
5. How Do The Replacements Stack Up?
In one important aspect they fall short. Libor offers forward-looking rates — that is, rates that incorporate market expectations for the cost of borrowing over a particular time scale, from overnight to a year. By contrast, the new benchmarks mostly reflect overnight lending rates. SOFR, for instance, is based on the U.S. repo market, where cash is briefly exchanged for high-quality securities such as U.S. Treasuries.
In A Post-Libor World, Here Are The Benchmarks That Will Matter
6. Why The Trepidation Over Loans?
Rewriting legacy contracts so they track an overnight benchmark instead of, say, a three-month rate, would be hugely complicated and probably requires renegotiation. Lawyers say many such contracts may end up in court since getting unanimous agreement on a replacement or “fallback” rate would be difficult.
“The big elephant in the room is legacy transactions which have no fallback provisions,” said Y. Daphne Coelho-Adam, counsel at Seward & Kissel LLP in New York. “There is a risk of litigation.” Moody’s Investors Service has warned of increased credit risks due to slow progress on switching from Libor.
Libor’s End Is $12 Trillion Headache For Loan Bankers: QuickTake
7. What About The Derivatives Market?
There’s less concern there. A protocol taking effect in late January will enable firms to incorporate so-called fallback language into contracts, so they can transition smoothly into replacement benchmarks. That will help firms avoid complicated renegotiations and a cliff-edge Libor scenario.
An estimated $200 trillion of financial contracts reference dollar Libor alone, with 95% of this exposure in derivatives, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Widespread adoption of the protocol is necessary to mitigate broader risks, according to the Financial Stability Board, an international body that monitors the global financial system.
A milestone was reached in October when interest-rate swaps on more than $80 trillion in notional debt switched to the new U.S. benchmark SOFR as the discounting rate.
America’s Libor Successor Is Racing To Gain Traction: QuickTake
8. What Are Governments Doing?
The U.K. is handing regulators extra powers to help with legacy contracts that can’t be easily renegotiated. In the U.S., planned New York state legislation would incorporate recommended fallback language for particular products in an effort to enable automatic transition to other rates.
However, lawmakers have been so preoccupied with Covid-19 that the draft law has been held up, fueling anxiety on Wall Street.
Here’s Why Libor’s End Is A Headache For Switzerland: QuickTake
9. How Else Has Covid-19 Changed The Landscape?
It disrupted the campaign to ditch Libor and even intensified its use. Both the U.S. and U.K. governments allowed Libor to be referenced as part of emergency loan programs to help keep businesses afloat. The Bank of England delayed plans to encourage banks to ditch the rate and the U.K. pushed back a deadline for lenders to cease issuing Libor-linked contracts.
10. How Will This Affect Regular Consumers?
There’ll be scrutiny over whether they will be forced to pay higher rates. Banks and asset managers face a greatly increased risk of fines, litigation and reputational damage if they poorly manage the transition for existing contracts and products, with regulators likely to watching closely whether they are treating customers fairly.
11. Will Libor Be History From 2022?
Regulators insist the transition won’t be delayed, but be prepared for a possible “synthetic” Libor. The U.K. regulator has hinted at the continued publication of the benchmark using a “more robust” methodology not based on bank submissions. This would only be applicable for legacy contracts that can’t switch to another rate. Details remain sketchy.
The probe, which exposed weaknesses in the way the US Treasury prices the interest on the country’s debt obligations, has been an embarrassing one for Washington since it was first exposed in June 2015.
Investigators are hitting dry wells in their evidence hunt through thousands of pages of Bloomberg chats, plus dozens of interviews, to bring a clear case, one law enforcement official familiar with the probe told The Post.
“There just wasn’t enough there,” the person said.
The probe, which exposed potential weaknesses in the way the US Treasury prices the interest on the country’s debt obligations, has been an embarrassing one for Washington since it wasfirst exposed by The Post in June 2015.
Jacob Lew, then head of the Treasury under President Barack Obama, wanted a quick resolution to the probe soon after it was revealed, The Post reported in 2017
Since then, Lew was replaced by Goldman alumnus Steve Mnuchin, who is now Treasury secretary under President Trump. Another ex-Goldman partner who joined the White House, Gary Cohn, had overseen the division that submitted the bids to Treasury at the time.
No one has accused Lew, Mnuchin or Cohn of any wrongdoing in the matter.
While charges are unlikely to be filed, it’s not clear that banks won’t suffer some negative consequences.
A class-action lawsuit filed in 2015 showed that, after The Post first broke the story, banks changed their behavior in how they bid for Treasury bonds.
The suit, which was brought on behalf of pension funds and investors, also relied on a confidential informant who helped describe how the banks allegedly rigged the Treasury markets.
As recently as 2017, Department of Justice investigators were focused on a period from 2007 to 2011 when Goldman was particularly successful in bidding for Treasury bonds, sources told The Post in 2017.
Since then, however, a string of departures at the department also slowed the investigation, a third source told The Post.
The talks between Goldman and the feds have been “inactive,” another person familiar with the talks told The Post.
The investigation was one of many that looked into banks for potential conspiracies to rig markets in the wake of blockbuster interest-rate and currency-rigging probes that led to billions of dollars in fines and the resignation of top execs, including Barclays chief executive Robert Diamond.
Other banks, including Deutsche Bank, Royal Bank of Scotland, BNP Paribas, Morgan Stanley, and UBS, had trading and chat records subpoenaed by the Department of Justice.
In addition, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the New York Department of Financial Services were investigating the alleged rigging.
Spokespeople for the Department of Justice and the SEC didn’t return requests for comment, and a DFS spokesman declined to comment.
Wall St. Traders Secretly Used Chat Rooms To Rig Treasury Bond Prices:
Wall Street banks secretly shared client information in online chat rooms in order to rig auctions for the $14 trillion US Treasurys market, according to an explosive lawsuit filed in Manhattan federal court on Wednesday.
The move wrongly fattened the banks’ profits and picked profits from clients, the suit claims.
The new accusations, leveled by several pension funds and wealthy individual investors, are contained in an expanded class-action suit originally filed in July 2015 — and include an unusual twist: Some of the evidence came from confidential informants and one of the banks sued in the earlier action.
That bank is now cooperating with the plaintiffs in the massive civil action, and is providing an in-depth look into how Wall Street allegedly conspired to rig Treasury bond trades.
The revised lawsuit expands on details on how the banks conspired to set Treasury bond prices — like moves to manipulate the price of the bonds higher on days when there was a lot of demand, and vice versa, court papers claim.
The funds, representing retirees and public workers, also claim the banks conspired to rig the secondary Treasury markets beginning in the 1990s through tightly controlled electronic platforms that inhibited more competitive trading — a new allegation that wasn’t in the original suit but mirrors similar complaints filed against banks in other markets, like stock loans.
The amended suit tightens its focus on a select number of banks, naming Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, the Royal Bank of Scotland, BNP Paribas, and UBS, among others, as the firms behind the rigging, which they allege occurred from Jan. 1, 2007, to mid-2015.
Last year, the judge presiding over the class-action suit had questioned whether the claims were strong enough to proceed.
The funds continue to allege the banks mined their own customers’ bids for Treasury bonds to get a bigger share of the auction, and sell the bonds for more profit.
Probes on the auction practices are being conducted by the Justice Department, the Securities and Exchange Commission and other federal, state and overseas regulators, sources said. No regulator has accused any bank of wrongdoing.
The banks named in the suit are primary dealers, which means they buy the debt directly from the Treasury and resell it to their clients at a pre-determined price.
Typically, the Treasury holds an auction, then banks submit their bids for US debt based on how much they think those bonds are worth. The Treasury then doles out the bonds proportionately to the bidders at the same price. The bank that asked for the best price gets the most bonds.
Traders at the Wall Street banks shared the prices that their clients had sought to buy the bonds, giving each of the banks in the alleged cartel a clearer picture of what they thought the market was, and a better chance at getting a bigger share of the bonds to sell, according to the complaint.
Details about bid prices are supposed to be a closely held secret.
Washington’s probe into the alleged rigging of the $13 trillion US Treasurys market by Wall Street banks has narrowed its focus to a handful of firms — including Goldman Sachs.
In addition, European authorities have opened their own investigation into possible Treasurys bid-rigging, sources said.
Investigators in the fraud division of the Justice Department have obtained chats and emails from Goldman that appear to implicate the company in manipulating the price of Treasury bonds, according to two sources familiar with the investigation.
Those chats and emails are being analyzed to determine if traders at other banks could be involved with any possible bid-rigging of US government debt, those two people said.
The identities of any traders in investigators’ cross hairs couldn’t be learned.
Goldman is said to be cooperating with the probe, one person said.
In June, The Post reported exclusively that Justice was in the early stages of investigating banks for rigging the price of Treasurys, the largest and most easily tradeable asset in the world.
Goldman is one of about 22 financial institutions that have been probed for any evidence that they may have manipulated Treasury auctions — a secretive process where banks and other financial services companies bid on the price of government debt, sources said.
Justice is also looking into whether there was price-rigging in the secondary market for Treasurys, where debt is sold at a premium, sources added. It’s unclear if investigators have yet found any improprieties or criminality.
Goldman, run by Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein, is a major player in US government bond trading, and regularly submits bids for auctions.
In November, Goldman disclosed in a regulatory document that it was being probed for possible manipulation of government bond prices. Michael DuVally, a Goldman spokesman, declined to comment further.
Meanwhile, the European Commission, the law enforcement arm of the European Union, has opened its own investigation, joining Justice, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, and the New York Department of Financial Services, according to two sources.
The rigging investigation is the biggest scandal to hit the quiet but crucial Treasurys market since 1990 when Paul Mozer, a former Salomon Brothers partner, illegally cornered the government debt market. Mozer’s actions are known to readers of Michael Lewis’ “Liar’s Poker.”
Traders are thought to have rigged the market in two possible ways: by agreeing beforehand to keep bond prices higher than normal in order to boost profits in other positions that depend on higher rates, similar to how banks rigged the London-based Libor rate.
Banks also could have colluded to keep prices lower than normal to sell them at a higher price — and score a bigger spread — to their clients, who agreed to pay a fixed amount beforehand.
69% Of Reissued Treasury Auctions Were Suspicious, Suit Says
Same Type Of Analysis Caught Cheating In Currencies And Libor
The same analytical technique that uncovered cheating in currency markets and the Libor rates benchmark — resulting in about $20 billion of fines — suggests the dealers who control the U.S. Treasury market rigged bond auctions for years, according to a lawsuit.
The analysis was part of a 115-page lawsuit filed in Manhattan federal court on Aug. 26 by Quinn Emmanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP and other law firms. The plaintiffs built their case against the 22 primary dealers who serve as the backbone of Treasury trading — including Goldman Sachs Group Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Morgan Stanley — using data from Rosa Abrantes-Metz, an adjunct associate professor at New York University who has provided expert testimony in rigging cases.
Her conclusion: More than two-thirds of a certain type of Treasury auction appear to have been rigged. She found issues with other auctions, too.
“The only plausible explanation is that Defendants coordinated artificially to influence the results of the auctions in the primary market,” according to the complaint filed by the Cleveland Bakers and Teamsters Pension Fund and other investors.
The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, comes as the U.S. Justice Department probes whether information in the Treasury auction market is being shared improperly by financial institutions, three people with knowledge of the investigation said in June. Treasury traders at some banks learn of customer demand hours before auctions, and were communicating with their counterparts at other firms via chat rooms as recently as last year, Bloomberg News reported earlier this year.
Abrantes-Metz’s analysis is similar to one used in lawsuits claiming bank and broker manipulation of the London interbank offer rate, or Libor. Those cases resulted in about $9 billion in settlements from the financial firms. Banks and brokers have paid about $9.9 billion in fines to global regulators related to manipulation of currency markets as of May.
Representatives of Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan and Morgan Stanley declined to comment on the Treasury lawsuit’s allegations.
The U.S. Treasury initially sells securities to the primary dealers who in turn sell them to clients, creating a secondary market for trading. Sometimes, after auctioning off debt, the government later issues an identical batch of securities — known as reissued Treasuries.
When the second set of Treasuries is issued, their prices and yields can be compared with the identical securities already trading in the secondary market. If there are pricing differences, that could be evidence of a problem. According to the plaintiffs, 69 percent of the auctions of reissued Treasuries from 2009 to 2015 appear to have been rigged, artificially boosting yields by 0.91 basis points.
The plaintiffs said there’s evidence of cheating from at least 2007 through earlier this year, when press reports revealed the Justice Department investigation into the auction process.
“These analyses reveal a consistent pattern: Treasury auction yields were artificially high (and prices correspondingly low),” according to the complaint. “Defendants then turned around and sold the Treasuries at higher prices (and correspondingly lower yields) in the secondary markets, reaping substantial profits.”
The data analysis showed similar discrepancies when prices at Treasury auctions were compared to those in the secondary market as well as the when-issued market. Treasury futures experienced similar downward pressure on prices leading up to auctions, the lawsuit claims.
Among the lawyers representing the investors is Daniel Brockett, a Quinn Emmanuel attorney who recently won a $1.87 billion settlement against Wall Street’s largest banks in a case alleging they conspired to limit competition in the market for credit-default swaps.
Brockett said in an interview that the new lawsuit alleges the artificially low auction prices grew in direct proportion to how many primary dealers were involved in an auction.
“No matter which way you measure it, they end up benefiting in ways that wouldn’t otherwise be possible in a liquid market of this size,” he said. The $12.8 trillion Treasury market helps sets interest rates on everything from home mortgages to credit cards and is often described as the largest, most-liquid market in the world.
Another group of investors, including Boston’s public employee retirement system, has filed a similar suit against Wall Street primary dealers. Experts interviewed by Labaton Sucharow LLP, the law firm that filed that suit, analyzed auctions and the market for when-issued securities, which are essentially agreements to buy or sell Treasury bonds, notes or bills once they’re issued.
They claim that banks colluded to push prices artificially low at auctions, and to drive prices for when-issued securities to artificially high levels, until December 2012, when news broke of investigations into how Libor was set.
“These scenarios all turn on a very simple conflict of interest,” attorney Michael Stocker said in a telephone interview. “You had banks who were auction participants who also had the power to move the prices that those markets depended on.”
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A Justice Department spokesman didn’t return an email seeking comment, while EC spokesman Ricardo Cardoso declined to comment.
Each bank declined to comment on the lawsuit after it was first filed.
Regulators Ask Banks About Preparations for Libor’s Demise
Banks must show how they are managing risks stemming from the planned end of the benchmark rate next year.
Financial regulators are asking banks to show they have plans in place to manage the risks stemming from the planned demise of a key benchmark interest rate.
Regulators, which for months have urged banks and other financial services firms to prepare for the likely end of the London interbank offered rate in 2021, have recently begun asking for evidence of their preparations.
The New York State Department of Financial Services is requiring banks and insurers to submit plans for managing the risks associated with the end of Libor, the agency said in a letter last week. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which oversees national banks, said in December that it plans to increase oversight of the issue and that examiners will evaluate whether banks have made an inventory of all contracts that could be affected.
The Federal Reserve’s supervisors have also begun asking banks about their plans, Vice Chairman for Supervision Randal Quarles said in June. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. declined to comment.
“They are all making similar noises: ‘We need you to pay attention. It is important. It isn’t going to go away,’ ” said Paul Forrester, a partner at law firm Mayer Brown LLP who focuses on corporate finance and securities.
Global banks face a particularly thorny challenge in moving away from Libor because they need to take into consideration the range of alternative rates that could be used in currencies across the world, Mr. Forrester said.
Major banks have made progress in preparing for the transition, according to Dan Stipano, former deputy chief counsel at the OCC. However, the coming transition to an alternative rate is rife with legal and operational risks for the industry, lawyers said.
“They need to give themselves a lot of lead time,” said Mr. Stipano, who is now a partner at Buckley LLP.
Banks Brace For ‘Big Bang’ Switch On $80 Out $200 Trillion Worth of Swaps
The big bang is one of the most important steps in the Libor transition to SOFR.
It’s being called the “big bang,” and it has derivatives traders on high alert.
In a critical development in the global shift away from old benchmarks that was triggered by Libor’s shortcomings, interest-rate swaps on more than $80 trillion in notional debt will transition this weekend to a new rate for determining their value.
While the switch to the secured overnight financing rate, or SOFR, is expected to boost longer-term liquidity in the new benchmark, it also is fueling concerns about unruly price action because it is expected to trigger the sale of swaps on tens of billions of dollars of debt.
“The big bang is one of the most important steps in the Libor transition,” said Marcus Burnett, director of SOFR Academy, an education technology firm whose clients include banks and asset managers. “We expect rates desks from the largest banks in New York to be participating.”
The reset, which will see SOFR replace the effective federal funds rate in calculations that value swaps, is part of a push to make SOFR a standard U.S. reference rate in debt and derivatives markets. SOFR is intended to replace dollar Libor, which still underpins hundreds of trillions of dollars of assets such as mortgages in the U.S. and syndicated loans in Asia.
The big bang follows a smaller-scale pivot in Europe this July, a less-complicated switch that occurred without much impact on the market.
Interest rate swaps allow two parties to trade one stream of payments for another, over a set period of time. The most common variety, known as a vanilla swap, involves exchanging payments from a fixed rate for payments from an adjustable rate that is based on Libor or some other reference rate. Another kind, known as a basis swap, involves two adjustable rates.
While SOFR has struggled to gain traction since its introduction in 2018, analysts say the upcoming big bang has already triggered a shift toward more trading in SOFR-linked swaps.
This could help pave the way for a curve that reflects expectations for where the rate will be in the future, addressing one of the new benchmark’s key weaknesses.
The big bang “will have a very, very good impact on liquidity,” said Jason Granet, chief Libor transition officer at Goldman Sachs Group Inc.
Still, in the immediate future there will be turbulence in pricing. Clearing houses are planning to effectively neutralize the changes in swap values caused by the big bang, and traders will see their positions automatically adjusted. LCH Ltd. and CME Group Inc. are preparing to distribute compensation from clients whose position values go up to those who see them decline.
LCH will facilitate payment of hundreds of millions of dollars in cash to cover lost value, and at least tens of billions of dollars in basis swaps to compensate for risk, said David Horner, head of risk at SwapClear, which is part of LCH.
However, some firms do not use basis swaps to hedge their discount-rate risk or are otherwise incapable of keeping them on their books, so they are expected to sell them. This Friday LCH will hold auctions in which 18 banks can close out $25 billion in unwanted basis swaps.
Buyers, ideally, would snap them up either as hedges against risk or for their own value. But the approach is largely untested since basis swaps were not distributed in the European version of the big bang.
“For about six months our members and clients have been able to look on their screens and see a forecast for the compensating cash payments and compensating swaps they will receive, so they are familiar with what’s about to happen,” said Horner. “It’s important for the market that it runs smoothly.”
CME will hold a similar auction on Monday. Clients have agreed to a maximum loss, said Sunil Cutinho, president of CME Clearing, and “if their positions cannot be auctioned off then they are fully protected and they can use their own private means to dispose of their positions.”
However, there are concerns about price swings in the market amid a surge in supply as some banks ditch basis swaps they received as compensation.
The big question is how well the auctions go. Clearing houses are not guaranteeing the minimum prices for the basis swaps, which could fall below the maximum that firms are prepared to tolerate, said Joshua Younger, a strategist at JPMorgan Chase & Co.
“Many would then likely unwind them in the open market and the price action could get very disorderly,” he said.
Firms need to understand they are facing more risk from this change first before they eventually get less risk, said Pieter Van Vredenburch, a principal at Market Alpha Advisors and previously a member of the Alternative Reference Rates Committee, which is guiding the U.S. Libor transition, when he worked for HSBC Holdings Plc in 2016.
“The big banks are very prepared for the big bang,” said Van Vredenburch. “But do I think the smaller banks are ready for this? Not even close.” When it comes to the overall switch to SOFR, he said, “there are so many nuances to the transition and the devil is in the details. There is nothing simple in all this.
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