Monday, 16 July 2012

What the Barclays scandal shows : 'Casino capitalists' rig financial bets in favor of the 'house'

What the Barclays scandal shows

What the Barclays scandal shows

'Casino capitalists' rig financial bets in favor of the 'house'

JULY 14, 2012

Former Barclays CEO Bob Diamond gives evidence to the British Parliament's Treasury Select Committee.
The fact that the existing economic order is untenable is proved by the very vulnerability and weakness of the system which has turned the planet into an enormous casino and millions of people … into gamblers distorting the function of money and investment, since what they seek at all costs is not production or the increase of the world riches but to turn money into more money. Such a distortion will lead the world economy to an inevitable disaster. — Fidel Castro Ruz, Jan. 1, 1999
Fidel Castro's acute observation about modern capitalism more than 13 years ago holds more truth today than ever. The frenzied speculation that dominates Wall Street, Lombard Street and other financial gambling dens produces not one iota of real wealth. The owners and traders of the giant banks that operate the “global casino” invite hedge funds, wealthy speculators and other “high rollers” to place their bets, using financial instruments known as “derivatives.” The derivatives represent bets on the movements of interest rates or prices of underlying assets over specific periods of time. The banks themselves take the other side of the bets.
More conservative investors such as pension funds also use derivatives, but to protect themselves against adverse movements of interest rates or prices or to insure against outright defaults on their bond holdings.
Typically, interest rate derivatives are pegged to “reference rates,” such as the LIBORs, the London Interbank Offered Rates. Agreed-upon reference rates are required to determine which side wins the derivative bets.
The various LIBORs are the interest rates the major banks operating in London—which include New York and European banks—“think” they can borrow money at from other banks over maturities ranging from one day to one year. These interest rate estimates are collected daily at 11 a.m. by the British Bankers' Association, averaged after the highest and lowest numbers are discarded, and then reported to and made public by Thomson Reuters.
You can look up the three- and six-month LIBOR rates in the Wall Street Journal, Investors Business Daily and other financial publications. The rates are of wide concern, since they also commonly serve as reference rates for lenders setting the interest rates on adjustable rate mortgages, credit cards and other types of consumer credit, as well as loans to businesses.
The rates actually charged by the lenders are determined by adding a “margin” onto the reference rate, and that sum can vary widely depending on the risk perceived by the lender. It is “reset” periodically, often every six months, based on the most recent LIBOR rate.
The amount of money potentially affected by the LIBOR rates is at least $500 trillion, British regulators have estimated. Other estimates range as high as $800 trillion! That is more than 10 times the annual Gross World Product for 2011, estimated to be about $70 trillion.
As the Barclays scandal reveals, the “banksters” have been rigging this gigantic gambling operation by secretly manipulating the LIBOR rates, thereby realizing virtually guaranteed windfall profits on their own bets. These ill-gotten gains come directly at the expense of those taking the other side of the bets, the speculators who are “counter-parties” to the derivative contracts—for whom most people are not inclined to shed tears.
But like all speculative profits—and profits in general—these gains come indirectly at the expense of workers the world over. The workers are the real producers of all value over and above wages—the ultimate source of profit—and in today's bankster-dominated, debt-ridden economy they are increasingly deprived of the very wealth they alone create.
As the U.S. economy de-industrialized following the disastrous stagflation of the 1970s, industrial capitalists increasingly turned into money capitalists, transforming their accumulated capital in the form of money into loan and speculative capital. Such capital, as Fidel Castro noted in 1999, “seeks at all costs … not production or the increase of the world riches but to turn money into more money.”
To add insult to injury, when a general crisis of overproduction such as the “Great Recession” of 2007-09 threatens to bring down the entire credit system, the “too-big-to-fail” banks are bailed out with taxpayers' money.
How they rigged the system
E-mails between Barclays' traders and those in the bank submitting LIBOR estimates shed light on how the betting in the derivatives market was rigged.
According to a U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission report, one Barclays trader wrote to a submitter: “We have another big fixing tom[orrow] and with the market move I was hoping we could set [certain] Libors as high as possible.”
Such requests, the report said, were frequently accepted by Barclays’ submitters, who e-mailed responses such as: “always happy to help” and “Done…for you big boy.” (The Telegraph, June 27)
Obviously, since more than one bank had to be in on the deal to have the desired outcome in the reported LIBOR, there had to be collusion between the banks submitting estimates to the BBA. No doubt such favors were traded back and forth, with each bank in turn reaping windfall profits on its derivative positions at the expense of their “counter-parties.”
The result was that the profits of the participating banks soared. The banks, in turn, rewarded their traders with generous bonuses for their “outstanding” trading results.
That collusion occurred among the major banks was confirmed by the $453 million settlement Barclays' reached June 27 with U.K. and U.S. regulators. According to the settlement, between 2005 and 2008, Barclays traders repeatedly requested that colleagues in charge of the LIBOR process tailor the bank's submissions to benefit their trading positions. Barclays staffers also colluded with counterparts from other banks to manipulate rates. (, July 10)
This activity clearly violated even the most flexible norms of bourgeois legality. In terms of the sums of money involved, it could eclipse the banks' cut for laundering hundreds of billions in drug money in recent years. (Liberation News, June 11, 2011)
Jeffrey Shinder, an antitrust attorney with New York-based Constantine Cannon LLP who has been following that LIBOR litigation, said potential bank liabilities could be “massive.” “This is potentially the mother lode in terms of potential damages,” he said.
While it is not possible to predict a specific loss amount, damages could be in the tens or hundreds of billions of dollars if the lenders are found liable, Shinder said.
“Everyone in the industry knows if you knock down a few basis points here and there [a basis point equals 1/100th of 1 percent—JB] billions of dollars shift between counterparties,” he said. Adjusting LIBOR up or down affects the interest rates on scores of financial instruments. “This is price-fixing,” he added. (Bloomberg News, July 5)
Estimates lowered in 2007-09 to stave off bank runs
In addition, between late 2007 and early 2009, Barclays made artificially low LIBOR submissions. This was during the height of the financial crisis, and the bank was afraid that “if its submissions were too high, it would get punished in the markets as investors questioned its health.” (, July 10)
Getting “punished in the markets” most likely would mean bank runs—the panicky withdrawal of deposits before the bank collapses. Clearly, once Barclays started the practice of falsifying its estimated borrowing costs, the other major banks were forced to follow suit.
That other banks were involved in manipulating LIBOR rates is confirmed by reports in the financial media that suspicion has fallen on all the banks that participate in the LIBOR process. Deutsche Bank, Royal Bank of Scotland, Credit Suisse, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase are among the institutions that have acknowledged they are being investigated by regulators. (, July 10)
Could these investigations, in part at least, be “blowback” on the part of the super-rich “victims” of the rate rigging by the major banks? Could the earlier revelations concerning trading losses amounting to at least $4.4 billion suffered by JPMorgan Chase in its London operations—as reported in its latest quarterly report released July 13—be tied in as well?
A falling out among thieves?
These latest revelations, on top of predatory lending, drug money laundering and other criminal behavior, shows that the banks are criminal enterprises and need to be seized for the public good...
There is so far no direct evidence that this is the case, but there is circumstantial evidence. The unusual aggressiveness by the regulatory authorities in going after Barclays and other banks, the avalanche of unfavorable publicity in the capitalist media, and the hostile questioning of Barclays' now ex-CEO Bob Diamond in the British Parliament suggests a possible falling out among the thieves of the financial world. Also, the settlement of $453 million imposed on Barclays, plus the resignations of its two top executives, is an unusually hard slap on the wrist for financial wrongdoing, even though Barclays has agreed to cooperate in the investigation.
Moreover, a large group of hedge funds came together to force JPMorgan Chase to swallow the huge multi-billion-dollar loss on their derivative position in the corporate bond market reported earlier. According to Wikipedia, Saba Capital Management, Blue Mountain Capital, BlueCrest Capital, Lucidus Capital Partners, CQS, and III are all known to have benefited from taking the opposite position to JPMorgan Chase.
This operation was initiated on Feb. 2 at the Harbor Investment Conference at JPMorgan Chase's Manhattan office by Boaz Weinstein of Saba Capital Management speaking to an audience of investors. He had noticed, Wikipedia reports, “that a particular derivative was losing value in a manner and to a degree which seemed to diverge from market expectations.” It turned out that a JPMorgan trader, known as “the London Whale,” had been shorting the index by making huge trades.
Investors who followed Weinstein's “tip” did poorly during the early months of 2012 as JPMorgan strongly supported its position. However, Wikipedia reports, by May after investors became concerned about the implications of the European financial crisis, the situation reversed and JPMorgan suffered large losses. No doubt the hedge funds involved were overjoyed at the gains they had achieved at the expense of JPMorgan Chase—though the latter is hardly suffering as it still reported an overall profit of nearly $5 billion in its latest quarterly report.
Banks are criminal enterprises and should be seized
Whatever the outcome of the various investigations now in progress—and many more details are sure to emerge in coming weeks—one thing is clear. These latest revelations, on top of predatory lending, drug money laundering and other criminal behavior, shows that the banks are criminal enterprises and need to be seized for the public good and to avoid, in the words of Fidel Castro, “an inevitable disaster.”
The 2012 presidential election campaign of the Party for Socialism Liberation calls for putting the assets and profits of the banks under the people’s control to:
  • Fund a massive jobs program! Jobs for all with union wages, rights and benefits. Full rights for all workers regardless of citizenship or legal status.
  • Provide free education for all—cancel student debt! Fund free, quality education for everyone from Pre-K through college,
  • End all foreclosures and evictions! Abolish interest payments to the banks—access to affordable housing for all.
By seizing, or expropriating, the assets and profits of the major private banks that are owned by the richest of the 1 percent and putting those funds in a democratically controlled and publicly owned People’s Bank, we can have an economy that serves the 99 percent.
To bring this about, we need to establish a government of the working class and its allies, which will make seizing the banks a top priority. Such an outcome will not only save us from the otherwise inevitable disaster casino capitalism has in store for us but will open the road to a society in which the producers of wealth will for the first time collectively own it, democratically control it, and ensure that it is used for human needs instead of profit.
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