12 June 2013

Some Thoughts on the Forex Rigging Scandal and Market Manipulation

The foreign exchange rigging scandal that is coming to light is very interesting, even in this time of financial scandals and corruption.

Here is the original Bloomberg story on it and you may wish to read it in its entirety.

The corruption in the enormous global foreign exchange market is coming to light not because of any surveillance by regulatory bodies. The multi-trillion dollar market is a genuine 'spot market' and is not considered a financial assets market, and is therefore lightly regulated.

As you may recall,  a certain liberal economic columnist asserted some years ago that it was not possible to rig the price of commodities using the futures market because the price is set in the spot market.  Well, he was wrong about that, since in those cases the spot price is a derivative of the front month in the futures. 

But with forex we do have an actual spot market, and apparently that principle does not hold even where there is an actual spot market, and of a size that most would assert that price fixing was not possible.  They forget that prices are set at the margins.

Efficient market theory dies hard because it is such a nice neat model and so attractive to the abstract mind.  That it is a mere fantasy is another matter.

The story came to light because very large customers went to the regulatory body in London and complained that they were tired of being cheated. The authority was forced to respond.

There is quite a bit of talk that nothing that was done was 'illegal.'

While that may be technically true from a regulatory perspective, there is sufficient evidence that traders from different companies were acting in concert to fix global benchmarks knowing with the intent to steal from their customers. If that is not the very definition of a criminal conspiracy I am not sure what would be.

And finally, despite its enormous size, the foreign exchange market was able to be rigged against customers because of the concentration of market power in a few hands, and the manner in which trades are placed, taken and executed.

From the Bloomberg story:
"While hundreds of firms participate in the foreign-exchange market, four banks dominate, with a combined share of more than 50 percent, according to a May survey by Euromoney Institutional Investor Plc.

Deutsche Bank AG (DBK), based in Frankfurt, is No. 1, with a 15.2 percent share, followed by New York-based Citigroup Inc. (C) with 14.9 percent, London-based Barclays Plc (BARC) with 10.2 percent and Zurich-based UBS AG (UBSN) with 10.1 percent."
We do not know what entities have been named in these revelations. These are merely the largest. We may never know depending on how the London regulators choose to dispose of it.

But it does shoot a gaping hole in the efficient markets theory. Here is a huge, widely dispersed market with literally millions of transactions affecting almost every economically involved individual in the world, and it became a chronically rigged market in a corruption scheme that went on for many, many years.

Put that in your free market neo-liberal pipe and smoke it.

I see where Singapore's regulator was threatening to reprimand the guilty parties. I submit that given the wide range of abuses and scandals that have been revealed and which are still ongoing, that there needs to be some serious action and soul-searching done about how markets are set up, what secrecies are permitted to the major players, the asymmetric distribution of information, and the invariable and pernicious, official sanctioned secrecy that marks every single financial fraud which we have seen over the past twenty years.

Secrecy is a privilege that has a limited place in markets that are honest, efficient and effective.

And I am sorry but if you still choose to believe that the markets, even very large and significant ones, are not being routinely rigged to the disadvantage of the public, then you are probably a fool, or a tool, or an obtuse, purblind ideologue.  

And that goes in spades for the precious metals and equity markets that are saturated with outsized position shoving, event driven price rigging, collusion, and high frequency front running as a normal order of business.