What Is the LIBOR Scandal?
The LIBOR Scandal was a highly-publicized scheme in which bankers at several major financial institutions colluded with each other to manipulate the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR). The scandal sowed distrust in the financial industry and led to a wave of fines, lawsuits, and regulatory actions. Although the scandal came to light in 2012, there is evidence suggesting that the collusion in question had been ongoing since as early as 2003.
As a result of the rate fixing scandal, questions around LIBOR's validity as a credible benchmark rate have arisen and it is now being phased out. According to the Federal Reserve and regulators in the U.K., LIBOR will be phased out by June 30, 2023, and will be replaced by the Secured Overnight Financing Rate (SOFR). As part of this phase-out, LIBOR one-week and two-month USD LIBOR rates will no longer be published after December 31, 2021.
- The LIBOR Scandal refers to a major episode of financial collusion in which one of the world’s most influential benchmark interest rates was manipulated by various banks.
- The scheme caused financial contracts to be mispriced throughout the world, in transactions such as mortgages, corporate fundraising, and derivative trades.
- The scandal left several regulatory changes, lawsuits, and fines in its wake, damaging public trust in the financial markets.
Understanding the LIBOR Scandal
The LIBOR is a benchmark interest rate that is used for the pricing of loan and derivative products throughout the world. It is formed using reference interest rates submitted by participating banks. During the LIBOR Scandal, traders at many of these banks deliberately submitted artificially low or high interest rates in order to force the LIBOR higher or lower, in an effort to support their own institutions’ derivative and trading activities.
The LIBOR scandal was significant because of the central role the LIBOR plays in global finance. The LIBOR is used to determine everything from the interest rates that giant corporations will pay for loans, to the rates individual consumers will pay for home mortgages or student loans. It is also used in derivative pricing. Therefore, by manipulating the LIBOR, the traders in question were indirectly causing a cascade of mispriced financial assets throughout the entire global financial system. Understandably, this led to a substantial public backlash, as parties throughout the world wondered whether they may have been harmed financially.
Public outrage at the scandal was further exacerbated by the apparent brashness of many of the actors involved. This became evident as emails and phone records were released during investigations. Evidence showed traders openly asking others to set rates at a specific amount so that a particular position would be profitable. Regulators in both the United States and the United Kingdom levied some $9 billion in fines on banks involved in the scandal, as well as a slew of criminal charges. Because LIBOR is used in the pricing of many of the financial instruments used by corporations and governments, they have also filed lawsuits, alleging that the rate-fixing negatively affected them.
Example of the LIBOR Scandal
Although it is difficult to know whether any particular person was affected by the LIBOR scandal, there are many potential ways in which its impact could have been felt. For example, individual homeowners may have initiated fixed-rate mortgages at a time when mortgage rates were artificially lifted based on upward manipulation of the LIBOR. From the homeowner’s perspective, every dollar of additional expense caused by the artificially high rates could be seen as a kind of “theft” being committed by the LIBOR rate fixers. Similarly, many traders who were party to derivative contracts would have experienced unnecessarily severe losses as a result of the LIBOR scandal.
Ultimately, the LIBOR scandal left many changes in its wake. Following the exposure of the LIBOR collusion, Britain’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) took the responsibility for LIBOR supervision away from the British Bankers Association (BBA) and turned it over to the Intercontinental Exchange's Benchmark Administration (IBA). The IBA is an independent U.K. subsidiary of the private U.S.-based exchange operator, Intercontinental Exchange (ICE). LIBOR is now commonly known as ICE LIBOR.
More recently, the FCA has announced that it will support LIBOR only until 2021, at which point it hopes to transition to an alternative system. The New York Federal Reserve launched a possible LIBOR replacement in April 2018 called the Secured Overnight Financing Rate (SOFR), which is based on short-term loans observed in the repo market. Unlike the LIBOR, there’s extensive trading in Treasury repos—roughly 1,500 times that of interbank loans as of 2018—theoretically making it a more accurate indicator of borrowing costs. Moreover, the SOFR is based on data from observable transactions rather than on estimated borrowing rates, as is sometimes the case with LIBOR.