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EU Lawmakers Ask Why Banks’ Rate-Rigging Culture Unchecked

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EU Commissioner of Financial Services Michel Barnier
Michel Barnier, European Commissioner for Internal Market and Financial Services. Photographer: Jerome Favre/Bloomberg

A panel of European Union lawmakers will ask regulators from three continents today why authorities failed to crack down on a culture of rigging interest rates.

Michel Barnier, the EU’s financial services chief, will testify to a European Parliament panel along with Gary Gensler, chairman of the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, and Masamichi Kono, board chairman of the International Organization of Securities Commissions, in Brussels today.

Confidence in Libor, the benchmark interest rate for more than $500 trillion of securities, plummeted following Barclays Plc’s admission in June that it submitted false rates. The revelations provoked renewed calls for tougher oversight of the financial system and pushed regulatory and criminal probes of interbank lending rates to the top of the political agenda.

“The culture of the banking industry has not changed and this culture was aided and abetted by regulatory failures,” Arlene McCarthy, the Labour lawmaker chairing today’s panel, said in an e-mailed statement.

Barclays was fined 290 million pounds ($471 million), the largest penalties ever imposed by regulators in the U.S. and U.K., after admitting it submitted false London and euro interbank offered rates. Its settlements with the U.K.’s Financial Services Authority, Gensler’s CFTC and the U.S. Department of Justice are the first in an international investigation into whether banks tried to manipulate Libor and other benchmarks.

“It is time for a new or revised benchmark,” Gensler said in prepared remarks for today’s hearing. It should be “a healthy benchmark anchored in actual, observable market transactions.”

Antitrust Probes

The rates scandal triggered probes by EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia, who will also attend today’s hearing, while the European Securities and Markets Authority and the European Banking Authority are working on guidelines for rates to avoid conflicts of interest in the benchmarks.

“I’m curious to see how authorities respond to what amounts to the largest fraud in economic history,” Philippe Lamberts, a Green lawmaker in the parliament, said in a telephone interview.

The EU session is followed later this week by a report from Martin Wheatley, managing director of the FSA, on a regulatory overhaul of Libor.

Rate-riggers face harsher punishments in the EU in the wake of the revelations. The parliament’s economic and monetary affairs committee is preparing to vote on Oct. 8 to boost the bloc’s sanctions against market abuse, including jail sentences for bank staff found guilty of collusion to fix inter-bank lending benchmarks.

Financial Penalties

The EU plans would also set financial penalties for attempted manipulation of rates. The commission is also seeking views on possible rules to overhaul Libor, Euribor and other market benchmarks.

EU regulators are weighing options such as forcing banks to provide real transaction data rather than estimates and increasing the number of lenders involved in the rate setting.

“Reform does not need to take place at an EU level,” Syed Kamall, a conservative lawmaker representing London in the European Parliament, said in an e-mail. “The commission is looking for any excuse to regulate the City.”

Libor Alternative

Dan Doctoroff, chief executive officer of Bloomberg LP, will also speak at the EU parliament event today.

In a Wall Street Journal editorial Aug. 2, Doctoroff proposed an alternative to Libor dubbed the Bloomberg Interbank Offered Rate, or Blibor, and offered to manage it as a service to global financial markets. Bloomberg LP is the parent of Bloomberg News.

Material changes to the way Libor is calculated risk invalidating millions of financial contracts, covering products ranging from mortgages to derivatives, Wheatley, the U.K.’s chief markets regulator, has said.

Any changes to the established Libor benchmark would need to have a “carefully planned and managed transition in order to limit disruption to the huge volume of outstanding contracts” that reference it, Wheatley said last month.

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