When most Americans think of British imports, their minds probably conjure up images of James Bond and Monty Python movies. These are all fine contributions, and with the success of the aforementioned British imports, it's hard to argue their significance, but quite possibly the most important import from England has a direct impact on the wallets of many Americans, especially homeowners. In this article we'll explain a little understood yet extremely relevant financial tool used across the globe: the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR).

What Is LIBOR?
LIBOR is equivalent to the federal funds rate, or the interest rate one bank charges another for a loan. The advent of LIBOR can be traced to 1984, when the British Bankers Association (BBA) sought to add proper trading terms to actively traded markets, such as foreign currency, forward rate agreements and interest rate swaps. LIBOR rates were first used in financial markets in 1986 after test runs were conducted in the previous two years. Today, LIBOR has reached such stature that the rate is published daily by the BBA at about 11:45am GMT.

LIBOR's reach is felt thousands of miles away from the Thames; it is used as the key point of reference for financial instruments, such as futures contracts, the U.S. dollar, interest rate swaps and variable rate mortgages. LIBOR takes on added significance in times of tight credit as foreign banks yearn for U.S. dollars. This scenario usually sends LIBOR for dollars soaring, which is generally a sign of imminent economic peril. (To learn more, see Top 5 Signs Of A Credit Crisis.)

The Reach of LIBOR
LIBOR is set by 16 international member banks and, by some estimates, places rates on a staggering $360 trillion of financial products across the globe. Included in those products are adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs). In periods of stable interest rates, LIBOR ARMs can be attractive options for homebuyers. These mortgages have no negative amortization and, in many cases, offer fair rates for prepayment. The typical ARM is indexed to the six-month LIBOR rate plus 2-3%. (For more, see This Arm Has Teeth.)

LIBOR's reach doesn't end with the homeowner. The rate is also used to calculate rates for small business loans, student loans and credit cards. More often than not, LIBOR's heavy hand isn't felt directly by homeowners or others in need of a loan. When the U.S. interest rate environment is stable and the economy flourishes, all is usually well with LIBOR. Unfortunately, there is another side to that coin. During times of economic uncertainty, especially in developed countries, LIBOR rates show signs of excessive volatility, making it harder for banks to make and receive loans among each other. That problem is passed down to people seeking loans from the bank. If cash is scarce or at a premium for your local bank, the bank simply charges you, the borrower, a higher interest rate, or worse, doesn't loan you the money at all.

If Times Are Bad, Watch LIBOR
Another prominent trait of LIBOR is that it can dilute the effects of Fed rate cuts. Most investors think it's great when the Fed cuts rates, or at least they welcome the news. If LIBOR rates are high, the Fed cuts look a lot like taking a vacation to Hawaii and getting rain every day. High LIBOR rates restrict people from getting loans, making a lower Fed discount rate a nonevent for the average person. If you have a subprime mortgage, you need to watch LIBOR rates with a close eye as almost $1 trillion in subprime ARMs are indexed to LIBOR. (For more information, read our Federal Reserve tutorial and to learn more about subprime mortgages, see Subprime Is Often Subpar.)

While LIBOR action in relation to the foreign exchange markets pertains more to currencies, such as the euro, the British pound, the Japanese yen, and others, its daily impact on the value of the dollars spent in the United States is negligible, though it is worth noting that LIBOR is very relevant to rates on the euro, or U.S. dollars held by foreign banks. The euro accounts for roughly 20% of total dollar reserves.

Bottom Line
LIBOR isn't sexy, and it's doubtful anyone is looking forward to the next release of LIBOR data with the same anticipation of seeing the next James Bond movie. That said, anyone with a credit card or a desire to own a home needs to be of aware of LIBOR. LIBOR is the true British monarchy, at least for the global financial markets - and your personal bottom line.

Related Articles
  1. Mutual Funds & ETFs

    ETF Analysis: PowerShares Senior Loan

    Read an in-depth analysis of the PowerShares Senior Loan ETF, which is an innovative product tracking the US senior leveraged loan corner.
  2. Bonds & Fixed Income

    5 Signs Of A Credit Crisis

    These indicators can illuminate the depth and severity of problems in the credit markets.
  3. Savings

    Reduce Interest With An All-In-One Mortgage

    "Offset" mortgages combine a checking account, home-equity loan and mortgage into one account.
  4. Credit & Loans

    How Interest Rate Cuts Affect Consumers

    Traders rejoice when the Fed drops the rate, but is it good news for all? Find out here.
  5. Investing Basics

    Why Interest Rates Affect Everyone

    Learn why interest rates are one of the most important economic variables and how every individual and business is affected by rate changes.
  6. Economics

    Investing Opportunities as Central Banks Diverge

    After the Paris attacks investors are focusing on central bank policy and its potential for divergence: tightened by the Fed while the ECB pursues easing.
  7. Credit & Loans

    Pre-Qualified Vs. Pre-Approved - What's The Difference?

    These terms may sound the same, but they mean very different things for homebuyers.
  8. Options & Futures

    Cyclical Versus Non-Cyclical Stocks

    Investing during an economic downturn simply means changing your focus. Discover the benefits of defensive stocks.
  9. Insurance

    Cashing in Your Life Insurance Policy

    Tough times call for desperate measures, but is raiding your life insurance policy even worth considering?
  10. Economics

    Understanding Donald Trump's Stance on China

    Find out why China bothers Donald Trump so much, and why the 2016 Republican presidential candidate argues for a return to protectionist trade policies.
  1. How do I obtain a banker's acceptance?

    Banker's acceptances act like time drafts. They can be created as letters of credit, documentary drafts and other financial ... Read Full Answer >>
  2. Can individual investors profit from interest rate swaps?

    Interest rate swaps normally take place between two business entities, but individual investors can still use them to speculate ... Read Full Answer >>
  3. If interest rate swaps are based on two companies' different outlook on interest ...

    Interest rate swaps are, at their core, a derivative instrument built on the premise of comparative advantage. To see how ... Read Full Answer >>
  4. Are secured personal loans better than unsecured loans?

    Secured loans are better for the borrower than unsecured loans because the loan terms are more agreeable. Often, the interest ... Read Full Answer >>
  5. Is Apple Pay safe and free?

    Apple Pay is a mobile payment system created by Apple to reducing the number of times shoppers and buyers have to pay for ... Read Full Answer >>
  6. Can you use your Walmart credit card at Sam's Club?

    Consumers can use their Walmart credit cards to shop at Sam's Club. However, they cannot use their Walmart credit cards when ... Read Full Answer >>

You May Also Like

Hot Definitions
  1. Black Friday

    1. A day of stock market catastrophe. Originally, September 24, 1869, was deemed Black Friday. The crash was sparked by gold ...
  2. Turkey

    Slang for an investment that yields disappointing results or turns out worse than expected. Failed business deals, securities ...
  3. Barefoot Pilgrim

    A slang term for an unsophisticated investor who loses all of his or her wealth by trading equities in the stock market. ...
  4. Quick Ratio

    The quick ratio is an indicator of a company’s short-term liquidity. The quick ratio measures a company’s ability to meet ...
  5. Black Tuesday

    October 29, 1929, when the DJIA fell 12% - one of the largest one-day drops in stock market history. More than 16 million ...
  6. Black Monday

    October 19, 1987, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) lost almost 22% in a single day. That event marked the beginning ...
Trading Center