Banks bound by cooperation agreements in an interest-rate rigging probe are providing a windfall of information to U.S. prosecutors investigating possible currency manipulation, according to a Justice Department official and a person familiar with the matter.
“The cooperation that we have been able to secure as part of our agreements in the Libor investigation has been very helpful to us in terms of holding banks’ feet to the fire,” Mythili Raman, the acting head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, said in an interview today. Raman, who declined to name the banks or comment further on the probe, said banks are “providing us with information about any new or ongoing conduct -- even old conduct -- that might be coming to light now.”
The accords have compelled some lenders to conduct internal examinations of their foreign-exchange businesses and share findings with the Justice Department, speeding the government’s criminal probe into the $5.3 trillion-a-day market, according to a person with knowledge of the investigation.
Some banks are handing over lists of potential witnesses, making employees available for interviews and giving up documents without subpoenas, said the person, who asked not to be identified because the inquiry is confidential. Investigators are holding weekly and sometimes daily phone calls with the banks, the person said.
UBS AG, Barclays Plc and Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc resolved a Justice Department investigation into how the London interbank offered rate, or Libor, was set, paying more than $800 million in criminal fines and penalties and agreeing to cooperate in other inquiries. The three lenders are among the largest currency traders in the world.
Dominik von Arx, a spokesman for UBS, Nichola Sharpe at Barclays and Sarah Small at RBS, declined to comment.
Rabobank Groep, which also paid the U.S. a $325 million criminal penalty to settle Libor-rigging allegations in a deferred-prosecution agreement, doesn’t rank among the top 20 currency traders in the world, according to Euromoney Institutional Investor Plc.
“Rabobank fully cooperates with regulators pursuant to the deferred-prosecution agreement,” Roelina Bolding, a spokeswoman for the Utrecht, Netherlands-based firm, said in an e-mail. “Rabobank does not otherwise comment on pending investigations of Rabobank or of any other person or entity.”
In addition to the settlements with the four banks, the U.S. Libor probe, which is continuing, has led to criminal charges against eight individuals.
Without the cooperation agreements, the banks would have been less motivated to come forward about currency trading, said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
“I don’t think they would have as much incentive and you’d have pushback from individuals at the bank who are saying ‘Why are we doing this?’” Levenson said in an interview. “‘This is our own business and we’re being overly cautious.’”
The cooperation agreements also allow the government to advance the probe without overtaxing law enforcement resources, which have been stretched by budget cuts, hiring freezes and furloughs in recent years. In addition to the Justice Department’s criminal and antitrust divisions, European Union antitrust regulators, the U.K. Financial Conduct Authority and the Swiss Competition Commission are probing rigging of currency benchmarks. The Federal Reserve also is examining the matter, Bloomberg News reported earlier this month.
“You could be talking about potentially millions of e-mails and thousands of hours of tape,” said Douglas Tween, a former Justice Department lawyer, now at law firm Baker & McKenzie LLP in New York.
The Justice Department “doesn’t have the resources to cull through all of that times 10 banks or 20 banks. They really to a large extent rely on the banks to cooperate and essentially give them all this evidence on a silver platter.”
Authorities around the world are investigating alleged abuse of financial benchmarks by companies that play a central role in setting them. Other rates under investigation include the ISDAfix, used to determine the value of interest-rate derivatives. European and U.S. regulators also are reviewing allegations of collusion in crude oil and biofuels markets in scrutinizing how the Platts oil benchmark is set.
Financial institutions have paid about $6 billion so far to resolve criminal and civil claims in the U.S. and Europe that they manipulated benchmark interest rates.
To resolve the Justice Department’s charges, UBS, RBS and Barclays signed deferred-prosecution or non-prosecution agreements within the past two years that effectively put the banks on probation and obliged them to report possible misconduct and cooperate in benchmark-rigging investigations. The banks risk indictment if the government decides they aren’t being cooperative, Tween said.
“Once they’ve got you on one thing, they’ve really got you,” said Tween. “They’ll say ‘You haven’t been cooperative and haven’t lived up to the terms of your deferred-prosecution agreement, and we’re going to pull the plug on that and indict you.’”
Barclays, based in London, agreed to notify the Justice Department of “all potentially criminal conduct by Barclays or any of its employees that relates to fraud or violations of the laws governing securities and commodities markets.” Zurich-based UBS agreed to similar terms.
Edinburgh-based RBS promised to cooperate in “any and all matters” related to “manipulation, attempted manipulation, or interbank coordination of benchmark rate submissions.”
Bloomberg News reported in June that currency dealers said they had been front-running client orders and attempting to rig foreign-exchange rates for at least a decade by colluding with counterparts and pushing through trades before and during the 60-second windows when the benchmarks are set.
The world’s seven biggest foreign-exchange dealers have now all taken action against their employees: at least 17 traders have been suspended, put on leave or fired.
The Justice Department’s use of deferred- and non-prosecution agreements has been rising over the past decade from an average of four per year between 2000 and 2004 to 27 in 2013, according to data compiled by the law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP. Last year was the fifth consecutive year with at least 20 such settlements, the firm said.
“These agreements are now a fixture in the federal corporate law enforcement regime, and all indications point to their use holding steady for the foreseeable future,” the firm said.
The agreements help the government conduct broader investigations faster, said Robertson Park, a former federal prosecutor who worked on the Libor investigation.
“If suddenly you have an institution that is effectively giving you the information and documents and data you need, if they’re motivated to provide it in formats that are immediately available and useful to you and if they’re making witnesses available, that can be a significant time savings,” said Park, a lawyer at Murphy & McGonigle in Washington.