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LIBOR Fixing: Conduct of Investigations

Volume 733: debated on Tuesday 23 May 2023

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Scott Mann.)

The story that I will tell this evening starts with understandable public anger at the failure of both business and state during the 2008 financial crisis and the massive institutional failures to bring real villains to justice. The regulators, the US Department of Justice and the Serious Fraud Office rushed to assuage that anger and deliver convictions but failed to do the work necessary to properly fulfil their task. Instead, they effectively delegated investigation to the banks, allowing them to offer up middle-ranking scapegoats so that they could avoid prosecuting the directors of disaster who actually ran the banks.

While the real villains got off scot-free, the scapegoats, including some whistleblowers, faced coercion and injustice. Their lives were destroyed by a totally inadequate regulatory and judicial system. In British courts, critical evidence was concealed. In America, the DOJ used tactics that amounted to judicial blackmail. The result was serial miscarriage of justice: 37 people were prosecuted, 19 convicted and nine jailed simply for doing their jobs. Their prosecutions were prompted not by complaints from victims but by a political and tabloid firestorm. How did this happen? Most of the critical data and facts that I will cite come from a seven-year evidence-gathering exercise by Andrew Verity, the BBC’s economics correspondent, who will be publishing a book on the subject shortly. I am grateful to Mr Verity for sight of his work and data.

In 2010 to 2012, the LIBOR scandal first came to light. It was reported that bankers at major financial institutions had colluded to manipulate the London interbank offered rate—LIBOR. Many leading banks were implicated, including Deutsche Bank, Barclays, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, and the Royal Bank of Scotland. LIBOR is an index designed to measure the interest rate at which major banks are lending money to each other, covering 10 currencies and over several different terms. It is calculated daily using estimates submitted by major banks of the rate at which they could borrow money at approximately 11 am. LIBOR was used worldwide as a reference for financial instruments including commercial loans, mortgages and student loans. At its peak, it underpinned $350 trillion of financial instruments. Now, its reputation is shot, and it will be replaced next month by the secured overnight financing rate, which is calculated instead by the Federal Reserve—notably, not in London.

After the credit crunch, there were persistent rumours of banks submitting estimates below available market rates—the nickname for it is “lowballing”—and there is no doubt that that was happening. In late October 2008, not long after Lehman Brothers collapsed, Chase New York had been pressured by the Fed to offer loans at a time when no banks wanted to. The actual rate it offered was 4.68%, but on that day its dollar LIBOR submission was 3.25%. That was an enormous difference of 143 basis points—a basis point is one hundredth of 1%—but 3.25% was typical of the LIBOR submissions that day. Now, 1.43 percentage points, or 143 basis points, may seem tiny, but for a bank loan of £100 million such a difference means nearly £1.5 million less in interest—a serious market distortion, undoubtedly harmful, particularly to small banks. Many knew it was happening, but few could, at least publicly, say why.

Then, in early 2010, Gary Gensler, head of the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission, was played a recording of a conversation between two London employees of Barclays bank, Peter Johnson and his boss Mark Dearlove. Johnson was responsible for Barclays’ dollar LIBOR submissions. The conversation Gensler was hearing followed several others in which Johnson, known as PJ, complained that other banks’ submissions were way below the conceivable market rate. PJ had been resisting senior level instructions to lower Barclays’ rate to stay “in the pack” of other banks. Indeed, his honest submissions—honest submissions—sometimes embarrassed Barclays by making others think they were paying unusually high rates.

The first voice on the tape was Dearlove’s rather cut-glass diction. He said:

“The bottom line is you’re going to absolutely hate this...but we’ve had some very serious pressure from the UK government and the Bank of England about pushing our LIBORs lower.”

Johnson protested:

“So I’ll push them below a realistic level of where I think I can get money?”

Dearlove came back:

“PJ, I’m on your side, 100 per cent…These guys don’t see it. They’re bent out of shape. They’re calling everyone from Diamond to Varley.”—

the senior directors—

“You and I agree it’s the wrong thing to do…These guys have just turned around and said, ‘Just do it’.”

What the whole recording revealed was two Barclays employees agreeing to rig LIBOR, albeit reluctantly and albeit instructed by the British state, through the top leadership of Barclays.

The LIBOR investigation began once Gensler at the CFTC heard that recording. He had a crime on his hands, as it were, but it was not bank directors and executives, or senior Bank of England and Whitehall officials who would be pursued. Prosecutors increasingly switched their focus away from the state-sponsored lowballing it discussed and towards something wholly different: requests from traders to LIBOR submitters for high or low settings that would protect their trading positions.

The regulators had outsourced their investigations to external lawyers hired by the banks themselves. Most of their evidence was collected by the bank investigators, particularly evidence passed from Barclays’ investigators to the CFTC, but those lawyers made fundamental errors. Most notably, for Barclays and UBS, they did not examine crucial documents, including the emails of senior executives—the real bosses. This was the first instance of a common theme: the scapegoating of low-ranking bankers by prosecutors, courts, directors and executives. Once the scandal became a news item, Barclays sacked low and middle-ranking employees like PJ who were involved. Their legal support was sharply cut off.

But not all faced the same treatment. Dearlove, for example, heavily supported by lawyers paid for by Barclays, pointed out that the instruction to lowball had come from the Bank of England and Whitehall. His case was immediately dropped like a dangerous hot potato, which it was. People at the top were attempting to shift the focus from lowballing to those skewing the rate to protect trading positions. But while submissions only changed by one or two basis points in response to trader requests, state-sponsored lowballing often meant understating LIBOR by 50, 100 or 150 basis points—comparatively enormous. That reflected a difference between the two practices that many failed to understand. Lowballing involved setting unambiguously and hugely inaccurate rates, but the so-called skewing only involved accommodating trader requests by selecting high or low rates from the tiny range of interest rates that banks were actually offering. Prosecutors mistakenly persuaded themselves there was only one accurate LIBOR rate each day, from which submitters should never deviate.

No such single rate existed. Banks could borrow at a small range of different rates, any of which could be described as accurate. With no rules about selecting from that range, submitters quite reasonably chose the accurate rates that helped their banks’ trading positions. This was not considered improper at the time, either by the submitters and the traders, or by the regulators and the central banks. It was normal trading practice that the LIBOR system was designed to accommodate.

However, the British courts later prosecuted low-ranking traders based on a sweeping ruling by the Court of Appeal that no commercial interest could ever be considered in LIBOR setting. The actions of those traders were then retrospectively declared illegal. Lives were destroyed because of the total misunderstanding of how LIBOR and business worked.

The ruling was thoroughly and unambiguously contradicted by a ruling in the US appeal courts last year. Indeed, the Serious Fraud Office initially struggled to find any plausible legal basis on which to prosecute. The submitters could not be prosecuted under laws such as the Fraud Act 2006—that required victims, false statements such as inaccurate LIBORs and potential gains for the perpetrators. None of those existed, at least not for the trader requests.

The SFO instead chose the vaguer common law offence of conspiracy to defraud. That required proving only two things: there was “dishonesty” and an agreement had taken place. However, the lowballing ordered by bank executives seemed to meet all the requirements under the Fraud Act, as well as conspiracy to defraud. It seemed a clear instance of commercial influence over LIBOR submissions, and far larger in scale. But the SFO preferred bending the law to prosecute low-ranking employees rather than pursuing top-level executives. It had access to all the material that Mr Verity has obtained, which points to the top, but it did not pursue it. For years, it failed even to interview the key executives.

Many traders initially admitted wrongdoing to prosecutors—admissions that later hurt them at trial. Tom Hayes initially admitted dishonesty to the SFO, but that is no real indictment on his cause. A shadow hung over the proceedings that motivated many who co-operated: the prospect of extradition to the United States. If they were extradited, acquittal was near impossible. More than 90% of prosecutions in the US end in a plea bargain. Most of the rest are found guilty. In the US, white collar criminals who pleaded not guilty were threatened with up to 30 years in jail without early release or any other arrangement, alongside violent criminals and drug lords and in unpleasant conditions. A plea bargain that guarantees a reduced sentence to a couple of years in an open prison is irresistible by comparison.

It was a form of judicial blackmail that forced defendants to admit to things that they had not done. British defendants such as Tom Hayes wanted to avoid that at all costs, and the only way was to be prosecuted in Britain instead, which necessitated telling the SFO one crucial lie: he pleaded guilty to acting dishonestly. Hayes changed his mind and decided to fight the charge, only after realising how much he would need to falsely implicate others, and when the sheer absurdity of the charges against him became clear. But Hayes’ judge, who described the case as open and shut before the trial began, ruled that no commercial interest could ever be legally considered by submitters.

The Court of Appeal upheld that absurd ruling, providing the legal underpinnings for later convictions. If applied consistently, Barclays directors, Bank of England officials and the British Bankers Association would all have been implicated. They had all effectively instructed lowballing or misreporting. But the ruling has never been applied to those at the top. Instead, Hayes got a 14-year sentence—more than an average manslaughter sentence—for something previously considered normal practice.

The SFO approached other traders for testimony to buttress its case, but everyone had engaged in the same behaviour that Hayes was accused of, because they said it was normal commercial practice. But the SFO saw no reason to stop. Instead, it found John Ewan from the BBA and Saul Haydon Rowe to act as expert witnesses. They testified that derivatives traders could never request changes to LIBOR submissions. Yet, as the SFO knew, Rowe was not an expert on LIBOR. In another trial, Ewan would contradict himself by saying it was permissible to submit LIBORs within the market range for commercial reasons. That is not to mention the fact the BBA itself had encouraged banks to adjust LIBORs in the past. An abundance of evidence that would have shown that what Hayes was doing was normal, and permitted by regulators and central banks, was either suppressed or not disclosed.

The theme repeated itself throughout the trials: important evidence was withheld, and the evidence offered came from non-experts or people who knew about or had condoned the behaviour. The same would happen in trials relating to Euribor—the Euro equivalent of LIBOR. The founders of Euribor had written rules for submissions when they launched the benchmark, and were willing to testify that commercial influence was welcome, expected and allowed for, but the judge refused to hear the evidence and ruled it was impermissible for submissions to be influenced by trading positions.

Not everyone faced that kind of trial. A recent judgment in America casts doubt on every conviction that relied on sweeping rulings about commercial influence. In January 2022 a US Appeal Court ruled, in US v. Connolly and Black, that trader requests—the basis for every single conviction—were not illegal. That shatters the foundations underpinning the ruling by the UK Court of Appeal.

The ruling was made by the Appeal Court for the Second Circuit, the circuit that includes New York and that would have judged an enormous volume of alleged financial crime. That court had a very high degree of financial expertise and we should place significant weight on its expertise. The ruling makes Britain a global anomaly—the only place where traders were locked up for something wrongly and retrospectively declared illegal. Indeed, the French, German and Japanese authorities never considered trader requests a crime, and even refused British requests to extradite traders.

These miscarriages of justice are scandalous, but perhaps just as serious was the attempt by the British and American establishments to hide their involvement in similar behaviour and their failure to apply the law equally and fairly. At its worst, it involved potential perjury in key trials. At other points, it involved possibly misleading a Committee of this House.

In 2012, the then deputy governor of the Bank of England told the Treasury Committee he had learned of lowballing only in “the last few weeks”, yet there appears to be damning evidence that that was untrue, including meetings, phone calls and sworn testimony to US authorities. It was also claimed there were no Bank of England instructions to change LIBOR submissions, but evidence uncovered by Mr Verity suggests that is also untrue.

The explanation offered to the Committee, that a misunderstanding caused traders to believe the Bank had instructed lowballing, is undermined by evidence that bankers had already received instructions prior to that “misunderstanding”. If it was a misunderstanding, no attempt seems to have been made to rectify it. Moreover, the recording of Mark Dearlove and Peter Johnson that I quoted earlier was not shown to the Treasury Committee, despite Barclays knowing about it at the time. It was exposed only in 2017 by the BBC’s “Panorama”. If it had been shown, it would have thrown doubt on any denials about Government pressure.

Several people who could have contradicted evidence before the Committee were never called to give evidence, such as Mark Dearlove and Peter Johnson, the two people on that tape recording; traders and submitters, who could have revealed information about any instructions; and the senior Whitehall officials behind much of the pressure, including Gordon Brown’s policy chief and the second permanent secretary to the Treasury.

The response to the scandal was itself scandalous. Every part of that public response—the convictions, parliamentary investigations and decisions not to investigate—were, at best, extremely questionable. I intend to write to the Metropolitan police asking them to review the evidence in order to examine whether any perjury has occurred. I have already written to the Chair of the Treasury Committee and the Speaker to consider whether the House was misled, and whether a new inquiry is needed.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for bringing this scandalous miscarriage of justice before the House. The House will have the opportunity to listen to Andy Verity when he comes to the Commons on 6 June, as well as some of those who were prosecuted. I suggest the right hon. Gentleman holds off from writing to the Metropolitan police until we confirm there will be a Select Committee inquiry. From the evidence available to us, it is clear that the House was misled, and I would not want a police inquiry to impede a House inquiry before we get the full evidence. We need an assurance from the Select Committee that it will seek Treasury officials, Treasury Ministers, Bank of England officials and all those regulatory bodies that were involved in this egregious miscarriage of justice, where people have suffered greatly as a result of what clearly appears to be not just the House being misled, but a conspiracy among them as well.

This is not the first time that the right hon. Gentleman and I have worked together on a miscarriage of justice, and I will defer to his wisdom on this. Given that it has been a decade, I do not think that a three-month or six-month delay in writing to the Metropolitan police would necessarily be a bad thing. I am happy to wait until the conclusion of any Select Committee hearing and any report that might be produced. I will no doubt hear from the Select Committee Chairman in the coming weeks.

The former Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay, who has seen this, has said that the whole affair presents a “serious challenge” to the “fairness of our system”, and that the question of law after the US judgment is more than worthy of consideration by the UK Supreme Court. Nine people were jailed for LIBOR rigging, and each one of those cases is a potential miscarriage of justice. Those people lost their careers, their reputations, their savings and their marriages. Their families’ lives were destroyed. Their cases demand a proper re-examination, preferably by the Supreme Court. The only other solution, as the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said, is a fresh look at the entire affair. A fresh parliamentary inquiry, with the protection of parliamentary privilege, would help to ensure that the truth comes out and that British justice is finally applied equally to all.

Let me first congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) on securing this debate. I recognise the work he has done to raise the profile of issues relating to the LIBOR scandal. I am also grateful to the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) for his intervention.

I would like to begin by saying a few words about LIBOR more generally. It is intended to reflect the rate at which banks lend to each other in wholesale markets. At its height, it was referenced by over $400 trillion-worth of financial contracts and was published for five major currencies. It has historically been important, not only for how our financial system operates but for everyday households and businesses. It featured in all sorts of contracts, including mortgages and loans in this country and internationally.

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the decline in liquidity in inter-bank lending, the Financial Stability Board made it clear that continued use of major interest rate benchmarks such as LIBOR represented a potentially serious source of systemic risk. This was because the underlying market that these rates were intended to measure was no longer sufficiently active. To make LIBOR submissions, banks were instead increasingly reliant on expert judgment, which made LIBOR vulnerable to manipulation and a source of potential financial stability risk. This began the process now known as LIBOR wind-down, in which the UK Government, along with the regulators, have worked with the market to gradually phase out LIBOR. That process is almost complete. It has been complex but, to date, successful.

Turning to the scandal raised by my right hon. Friend, in 2012 it emerged that LIBOR was being manipulated for financial gain, and this became known as the LIBOR scandal. It was discovered that bankers were falsely inflating or deflating their rates to profit from trades. As a result, investigations into criminal activity began in a number of jurisdictions including the UK and the US. As well as fines to banks including Barclays, UBS and Deutsche Bank, the Serious Fraud Office secured five convictions for LIBOR rigging.

I agree with my right hon. Friend’s sentiment that this was a serious matter, and the response of the Government at the time reflected that. The Government set up the independent Wheatley review in 2012 and subsequently endorsed all of Mr Wheatley’s recommendations. They introduced legislation through the Financial Services Act 2012 to bring LIBOR under the regulatory jurisdiction of the Financial Conduct Authority, where it has remained. They also made manipulating benchmarks such as LIBOR a criminal offence. As I have mentioned, the investigations and subsequent prosecutions relating to the scandal were led by the independent Serious Fraud Office.

I note that my right hon. Friend says he will write to the Metropolitan police and has written to the Treasury Committee. He will understand that it would be inappropriate for me to comment from the Dispatch Box on any individual cases, or on the specifics of those cases. I can say that the Government’s position on financial market abuse is clear: it undermines the integrity of public markets, reduces public confidence and impairs their effectiveness.

Finally, I will speak to the point that my right hon. Friend has raised, that, during the financial crisis, state authorities were involved in the rigging of the LIBOR—lowballing, he referred to it as—and that the Treasury Committee was misled. He will be aware of the evidence provided to the original Treasury Committee inquiry by the former deputy governor of the Bank of England, Paul Tucker, and of the conclusions reached by the Committee in paragraph 107 of its report.

Select Committees of this House perform a vital role in holding Ministers and others to account, and it is important that, in fulfilling this role, they receive accurate evidence. It would, however, be a matter for the Treasury Committee and the relevant witnesses to respond as needed and, like my right hon. Friend, I look forward to hearing the response of the Committee’s Chair.

As a fellow parliamentarian, I thank my right hon. Friend for using his significant authority in this place to raise this important matter. I hope he will be content if I conclude my remarks with the hope that the UK will always uphold the integrity of our markets, as well as fair justice for those who work in them.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.