• Swiss regulator: `We won't go for a settlement at any price'
  • Settlement would resolve one of few remaining Libor probes

At least six banks targeted in Switzerland’s investigation into Libor-rigging are in settlement talks with the country’s competition regulator, according to two people familiar with the negotiations, as the four-year probe moves closer to wrapping up.

Comco, as the Swiss Competition Commission is known locally, is trying to reach a so-called “accord amiable” with the banks as it aims to complete the probe by July, one of the people said. They asked not to be identified because the negotiations are continuing.

A settlement in Switzerland would mean nearly all global investigations into rate-rigging are drawing to a close, about four years after the first fines were levied by U.S. and U.K. regulators. While banks face a smaller European Union probe, they have already been forced to pay about $9 billion for manipulating benchmark interest rates. Comco is moving into the final phase of an investigation opened in 2012 into “potential unlawful agreements” among a dozen banks, including Credit Suisse Group AG, UBS Group AG, Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc, HSBC Holdings Plc and Deutsche Bank AG.

Immunity Granted

UBS, Switzerland’s biggest bank, has been given limited immunity in the Swiss competition probe, because it was the first company to come forward to help with the investigation into the rigging of the London interbank offered rate. Spokespeople for Zurich-based UBS, as well as Credit Suisse, HSBC, RBS and Deutsche Bank all declined comment.

Comco typically tries to reach amicable settlements but is not wedded to the concept, Comco President Vincent Martenet said in an interview this week.

“In the Libor case, we are open to negotiate a settlement but we won’t push for a settlement that would be contrary to the spirit of the law,”  he said in his office at the University of Lausanne, where he teaches competition law. “We won’t go for a settlement at any price.”

Martenet said he couldn’t comment on how much the banks may pay to settle the Libor cases but the maximum fine that Comco can levy is 10 percent of a company’s Swiss revenue in the past three years in the sector being investigated.

“We typically push for the high end of the range of fines which can be up to 10 percent” when banks are working together to fix prices, he said. “However at the end of the day, each assessment is to be made on a case-by-case basis.”

More Cases

While Libor cases may be close to being completed, banks are facing other probes.

Comco began a separate investigation into foreign exchange manipulation in 2013. While Comco has learned things from a separate probe by Switzerland’s financial regulator Finma that wrapped up at the end of 2014, it’s too early to give a time frame for when its forex investigation will be completed, said Martenet.

“Certainly, we benefit from the investigation on forex that Finma has already undertaken but they’ve had a different angle of attack from us, so we have to do a lot of our own work,” he said.

Martenet’s team and his European Union counterparts are benefiting from what he calls the “preventative effect” of a bilateral accord signed at the end of 2014 that allows them to share confidential information in an investigation without the approval of the targeted companies.

“Once a company knows there is an investigation in Bern and Brussels in parallel, it knows it has to hand over all the relevant information to both sides,” he said. “Companies know they can’t play one side off against another.”

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