San Francisco investigates LIBOR fraud and its possible impact on city finances
Although few have ever heard of it, there's probably no number more important to the global financial system than the London Interbank Offered Rate, or LIBOR. Defined precisely, LIBOR is a set of different interest rates that the world's largest banks charge one another for cash loans denominated in US dollars.
Because of its centrality to the economic system, and the trust placed in it, LIBOR is used to calculate everything from consumer loans and home mortgages to exotic financial derivatives and investments. LIBOR makes the financial world go round, influencing the price of everything. Fortune 500 companies decide whether or not to invest billions in new factories and product lines based on LIBOR's direction. Governments rethink their debt levels and spending when LIBOR ticks up and down.
It turns out, however, that LIBOR has been a lie, and that the world's biggest banks rigged the rate to skim off billions of dollars in value from other corporations and the general public. In a devastating set of revelations that began to surface two years ago, the panel of the largest global banks that set the LIBOR rate conspired to manipulate it, to increase or decrease LIBOR, solely because a higher or lower quote on particular days would allow them to reap millions in instant profits.
US authorities working with regulators in the UK, Japan, Switzerland, and Singapore are currently investigating upwards of two dozen banks in what is probably the single biggest financial crime ever perpetrated. So far, employees of Barclay's, UBS, and Credit Suisse have been fired, arrested, and charged. Many more criminal prosecutions are surely coming, but the real battle will be in the civil courts and the court of public opinion.
To date only a handful of civil lawsuits have been filed, the first shot fired by the city of Baltimore early last year. Last month, the County of San Mateo, city of Richmond, and the East Bay Municipal Utility District filed their own cases which were quickly consolidated into a growing class action to be heard in New York's Southern District Federal Court.
Now San Francisco is set to enter the ring. On January 29, Supervisor John Avalos called for public hearings to review the impact of LIBOR manipulation on San Francisco's finances, starting next week. While other cities and public agencies might be ahead in the federal courts, Avalos's recommendation takes the investigation further, and in a different direction.
"We're trying to assess how the LIBOR scandal affects San Francisco, and that's what the hearing is about," Avalos told the Guardian. "These banks rigged the financial markets for their own benefit and the global economy suffered as a result."
While early indications are that San Francisco is better protected than many jurisdictions, Avalos said, "I think it's important to stand with other cities and counties that are suffering." Or as his legislative aide Jeremy Pollock told us, "When a major city like San Francisco calls for hearings, it'll get a lot more attention. The hearing will be an educational process for everyone to understand how this complicated financial world really works."
Former Supervisor Chris Daly, now the political director for Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents most city employees, said there's a need to hold the banks publicly accountable. "These other jurisdictions that have filed suit haven't had a big public process. We don't want to see settlements for less in courtrooms. We want to see the full public exposure of the issue, and in terms of the cause of bank accountability, it is the better approach."
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