Some of the world’s biggest scandals have gone unspotted for years. The nature of fraud is that it works outside our field of vision
Guys, you’ve got to hear this,” I said. I was sitting in front of my computer one day in July 2012, with one eye on a screen of share prices and the other on a live stream of the House of Commons Treasury select committee hearings. As the Barclays share price took a graceful swan dive, I pulled my headphones out of the socket and turned up the volume so everyone could hear. My colleagues left their terminals and came around to watch BBC Parliament with me.
It didn’t take long to realise what was happening. “Bob’s getting murdered,” someone said.
Bob Diamond, the swashbuckling chief executive of Barclays, had been called before the committee to explain exactly what his bank had been playing at in regards to the Libor rate-fixing scandal. The day before his appearance, he had made things very much worse by seeming to accuse the deputy governor of the Bank of England of ordering him to fiddle an important benchmark, then walking back the accusation as soon as it was challenged. He was trying to turn on his legendary charm in front of a committee of angry MPs, and it wasn’t working. On our trading floor, in Mayfair, calls were coming in from all over the City. Investors needed to know what was happening and whether the damage was reparable.
A couple of weeks later, the damage was done. The money was gone, Diamond was out of a job and the market, as it always does, had moved on. We were left asking ourselves: How did we get it so wrong?
At the time I was working for a French stockbroking firm, on the team responsible for the banking sector. I was the team’s regulation specialist. I had been aware of “the Libor affair”, and had written about it on several occasions during the previous months. My colleagues and I had assumed that it would be the typical kind of regulatory risk for the banks – a slap on the wrist, a few hundred million dollars of fines, no more than that.
The first puzzle was that, to start with, it looked like we were right. By the time it caught the attention of the mainstream media, the Libor scandal had reached what would usually be the end of the story – the announcement, on 27 June 2012, of a regulatory sanction. Barclays had admitted a set of facts, made undertakings not to do anything similar again, and agreed to pay fines of £59.5m to the UK’s Financial Services Authority, $200m to the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission and a further $160m to the US Department of Justice. That’s how these things are usually dealt with. If anything, it was considered quite a tough penalty.
But the Libor case marked the beginning of a new process for the regulators. As well as publishing their judgment, they gave a long summary of the evidence and reasoning that led to their decision. In the case of the Libor fines, the majority of that evidence took the form of transcripts of emails and Bloomberg chat. Bloomberg’s trading terminals – the $50,000-a-year news and financial-data servers that every trader uses – have an instant-messaging function in addition to supplying prices and transmitting news. Financial market professionals are vastly more addicted to this chat than tween girls are to Instagram, and many of them failed to realise that if you discussed illegal activity on this medium, you were making things easy for the authorities.
The transcripts left no room for doubt.
Trader C: “The big day [has] arrived … My NYK are screaming at me about an unchanged 3m libor. As always, any help wd be greatly appreciated. What do you think you’ll go for 3m?”
Submitter: “I am going 90 altho 91 is what I should be posting.”
Trader C: “[…] when I retire and write a book about this business your name will be written in golden letters […]”.
Submitter: “I would prefer this [to] not be in any book!”
Perhaps it’s unfair to judge the Libor conspirators on their chat records; few of the journalists who covered the story would like to see their own Twitter direct-message history paraded in front of an angry public. Trading, for all its bluster, is basically a service industry, and there is no service industry anywhere in the world whose employees don’t blow off steam by acting out or insulting the customers behind their backs. But traders tend to have more than the usual level of self-confidence, bordering on arrogance. And in a general climate in which the public was both unhappy with the banking industry and unimpressed with casual banter about ostentatious displays of wealth, the Libor transcripts appeared crass beyond belief. Every single popular stereotype about traders was confirmed. An abstruse and technical set of regulatory breaches suddenly became a morality play, a story of swaggering villains who fixed the market as if it was a horse race. The politicians could hardly have failed to get involved.
It is not a pleasant thing to see your industry subjected to criticism that is at once overheated, ill-informed and entirely justified. In 2012, the financial sector finally got the kind of enemies it deserved. The popular version of events might have been oversimplified and wrong in lots of technical detail, but in the broad sweep, it was right. The nuanced and technical version of events which the specialists obsessed over might have been right on the detail, but it missed one utterly crucial point: a massive crime of dishonesty had taken place. There was a word for what had happened, and that word was fraud. For a period of months, it seemed to me as if the more you knew about the Libor scandal, the less you understood it.
That’s how we got it so wrong. We were looking for incidental breaches of technical regulations, not systematic crime. And the thing is, that’s normal. The nature of fraud is that it works outside your field of vision, subverting the normal checks and balances so that the world changes while the picture stays the same. People in financial markets have been missing the wood for the trees for as long as there have been markets.
Some places in the world are what they call “low-trust societies”. The political institutions are fragile and corrupt, business practices are dodgy, debts are rarely repaid and people rightly fear being ripped off on any transaction. In the “high-trust societies”, conversely, businesses are honest, laws are fair and consistently enforced, and the majority of people can go about their day in the knowledge that the overall level of integrity in economic life is very high. With that in mind, and given what we know about the following two countries, why is it that the Canadian financial sector is so fraud-ridden that Joe Queenan, writing in Forbes magazine in 1989, nicknamed Vancouver the “Scam Capital of the World”, while shipowners in Greece will regularly do multimillion-dollar deals on a handshake?
We might call this the “Canadian paradox”....MUCH MORE
For more on the Canadian Paradox and the guy who reported on it for 25 years here's the Vancouver Sun, June 21, 2013:
The Vancouver Sun's David Baines' Farewell to Readers
As noted in our introduction:
Leaving the life of frauds scams and flim-flams.Baines' columns are basically a master class in skullduggery, we included some in the post above but there was so much and he ruffled so many feathers.
We missed it last year so I thought a one year anniversary adios to one of the best business journalists I've ever come across would be in order. He wrote about some of the scummiest denizens of one of the most wide-open markets in the world and despite the death threats and the lawyers and the diabolically ingenious corporate structures he got the story and as long-time readers of this blog know I have a weakness for tales of the knaves, varlets charlatans and outright frauds that populate the underbelly of the markets.
I think Baines does too....
As B.C. Business headlined in 2005: "David Baines: The Most Hated Man in Business".
Here's one of our Baines posts from 2013
Checking In On the Vancouver Business Scene