10 July 2012

LIBOR and the Mispricing of Risk: The Dark Heart of the Systemic Fraud - Do Something

"Price discovery is not a sexy function of markets, but it is critical to the efficient allocation of scarce capital and resources, and to the preservation of the long term wealth of investors and the economy as a whole. If price discovery is compromised by manipulation, then we will all be gradually impoverished and the economy will be imbalanced and unstable."
The blogger London Banker writes an extraordinarily insightful piece today that perfectly captures what I have said for some time now, and probably phrased more elegantly and persuasively than I have been able in my own efforts.

Fraud is the mispricing of risk and misreprenting the value of transactions for private benefit. And the fraud we are seeing exposed in the Anglo-American financial system is not incidental, it is not a lapse in safeguards, it is not a rogue operation, not a one-off, but rather it is a 'feature' of the system itself.

The financial system has become, through misplaced ideology and regulatory capture, and most importantly the corrupting influence of easy money on the morally weak and ambivalent, a gigantic con game run for the benefit of a few elite insiders who have been systemically looting the real economy for the past twenty years.

July 14 is Bastille Day. This might be a good time to resolve to do something peaceful but firm to let those around us know that this will not be tolerated any further, that it has gone on long enough, and that people are aware of it and care about it.

Write a letter, forward an article to friends, make comments on sites, stop doing business with bad actors, take your money out of Wall Street and the City of London, make some quiet gesture, and that little action will combine with other actions to form a swell of opinion that cannot be ignored.

If you don't like your choice in politicians, don't take it quietly. Boot them all out if you have to. Let them know that second rate is not good enough.  Refuse to be used.  Refuse to do business with them.  What they cannot take away from you is your refusal.

If you act like a sheep or a cockroach, then they will treat you like a sheep and a cockroach.

The most important thing is to do something, if only for yourself, so that you will not feel powerless and disconnected from your fellows, many of whom feel the same as you do. Then no one can you have done nothing. And if you can, get into the habit of doing something little every chance you get, every day, to assert your humanity as a small act of defiance. Sometimes its the little things that make life worth living.

And above all, stop passing the lies around, and listening to those who put them out there to trick and confuse you.  You can spot them by their ugliness and mean-spiritedness.   Do not be a part of the problem.  Reject the naysayers, the cynics, and those who sap the life and energy from you with their negativity and fatalism.  They may be dead to life, but you do not have to join them.
'Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.'
The Banks must be restrained, and the financial system reformed, with balance restored to the economy, before there can be any sustained growth and recovery.

Lies, Damn Lies and LIBOR
By London Banker

I've been hesitant to write about the LIBOR scandal because what I want to say goes so much further. We now know that Barclays and other major global banks have been manipulating the calculation of LIBOR through the quotation data they provided to the British Bankers Association. What I suspect is that this is not a flaw but a feature of modern financial markets. And if it was happening in LIBOR for between 5 and 15 years, then the business model has been profitably replicated to many other quotation-based reference prices.

Price discovery is not a sexy function of markets, but it is critical to the efficient allocation of scarce capital and resources, and to the preservation of the long term wealth of investors and the economy as a whole. If price discovery is compromised by manipulation, then we will all be gradually impoverished and the economy will be imbalanced and unstable.

Over the past 25 years the forces of regulatory liberalisation and demutualisation of markets have allowed the largest global banks to set the rules, processes and infrastructure of global markets to their own self-interested requirements. Regulatory complexity and harmonisation benefit the biggest banks disproportionately, eroding the competitive stance of smaller, local banks and market participants. This has led to a very high degree of concentration in a very few banks in most markets that determine global reference rates for interest rates, currencies, commodities and investments. If those few collude with each other - as Adam Smith warned was always the result - then they impoverish us all.

We have allowed markets to evolve in ways that make supervision of markets almost impossible. Many instruments trade off-exchange or in multiple venues, making it nearly impossible for any single investor or regulator to supervise trading to prevent or detect manipulation or abuse. Many financial instruments are now synthetic compilations of underlying assets and derivatives, with multiple pricing components determined by reference to other prices or rates. Demutualisation and regualtory reforms stripped exchanges of the self-regulating interest in preventing manipulation and abuse by their members as mergers, profits and market share came to dominate governance objectives.

Off-exchange trading has been allowed to proliferate, creating massive ill-transparent and largely illiquid markets in almost every sector of finance. Pricing in these markets is based around calculated reference rates which, like LIBOR, are open to abusive quotation and data input practices. Many OTC derivatives are priced and margined using reference rates calculated against quotations unrelated to actual reported transactions. Synthetic securities such as ETFs are another example of an instrument that prices off a reference rate rather than the actual contents of an underlying asset portfolio. These instruments are open to consistent abusive pricing as a means of incrementally impoverishing those market participants who are the krill on which the global banks thrive.

How has it been possible for banks to grow from less than 4 per cent of the global economy to more than 12 per cent of the global economy without impoverishing others? How has it been possible for profits in the financial sector to be consistently higher than profits from other human endeavors with more tangible products or impacts on our daily lives - such as agriculture, transport, health care or utilities? How has it been possible that banks derive their profits not from the protected and regulated activities of deposit-taking and lending, but from the unsupervised and often unknowable escalation of off-balance sheet assets and liabilities? How has it been possible that pension savings have increased while pension returns have declined to the point where only bankers can expect a comfortable old age? Global banks have built the casinos and tilted the odds in the house's favour by rigging the data that determines the outcomes of most of the bets on the table. Every one of us that sits at the table long enough - whether saver, investor, borrower, taxpayer or pensioner - will be a loser. It is not a flaw; it is feature...

Read the rest here.