Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Libor Cracks Widen as Bankers Struggle With Reforms

(Bloomberg) -- Few companies have suffered from the subprime mortgage collapse more than UBS AG, which has taken $38 billion of writedowns and losses, replaced its chief executive officer and chairman and saw its stock tumble 60 percent.

Yet on 85 percent of the days between July and mid-April, the Zurich-based bank told the British Bankers' Association that it could borrow in the money markets at lower interest rates than its rivals. Not even the U.K.'s Lloyds TSB Group Plc, which only wrote down $1.4 billion, could obtain the rates UBS said it was able to get, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

``Even when the market knew UBS was massively exposed and Lloyds wasn't, that was not reflected in Libor,'' said Antony Broadbent, an independent banking consultant and former analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. in London.

Such discrepancies are creating a crisis of confidence in the London interbank offered rate published daily by the London- based BBA and taken from the contributions of UBS, Lloyds TSB and 14 other banks. Rates on corporate bonds, leveraged buyouts loans, derivatives and even U.S. mortgages are pegged to Libor.

The criticism has prompted the BBA to accelerate a review of the 24-year-old system of setting rates. The findings, due May 30, may determine how fast the banking industry recovers from the credit crisis.

`People Get Hurt'

``You've got to fix Libor,'' said Tim Bond, head of asset allocation strategy in London at Barclays Capital, a unit of Barclays Plc, one of the banks that provide quotes to the BBA. ``You don't ever want to be in a situation like this again, where people can get away with quoting whatever rate they like. Real people get hurt like this.''

Libor is a benchmark for about $350 trillion of debt- related securities and derivatives, according to the Bank for International Settlements in Basel, Switzerland. The rate that San Antonio-based AT&T Inc., the biggest U.S. phone company, pays on $2 billion of notes it sold on March 27 floats at three- month Libor plus 0.45 percentage point.

``Libor is baked into the global financial system,'' analysts at JPMorgan Chase & Co. led by Terry Belton, global head of fixed-income and foreign-exchange research, wrote in a May 16 report. ``The question of whether a benchmark could be designed that is less flawed than Libor is debatable; whether such a benchmark could effectively replace Libor is not.''

Libor Exposed

Every morning the BBA, an unregulated trade group, asks member banks how much it would cost them to borrow from each other for 15 different periods, from overnight to one year, in currencies from dollars to euros and yen. It then calculates averages, throwing out the four highest and lowest quotes, and publishes them at about 11:30 a.m. in London. Three-month dollar Libor was set at 2.64 percent today.

Libor was thrust into the spotlight in August as the subprime-mortgage contagion spread and banks were suddenly wary of lending to each other because of mounting losses that reached $383 billion as of last week, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

Three-month Libor soared to 2.40 percentage points above yields on Treasury bills on Aug. 20, the widest margin since December 1987 and up from 0.39 percentage point a month earlier. The figure was 0.80 percentage point today.

The credit crisis exposed Libor's flaws, according to Peter Hahn, a London-based research fellow for Cass Business School and a former managing director at Citigroup Inc. That's because the BBA publishes the names of contributors and their rates, giving lenders an incentive to underestimate borrowing costs to keep from appearing like they are in financial straits.

Rates `a Lie'

In the first four months of 2007, the difference between the highest and lowest rates for three-month Libor didn't exceed 0.02 percentage point, according to JPMorgan. In the same period this year, it was as wide as 0.17 percentage point.

The BIS said in a March report that some lenders may have ``manipulated'' rates. Strategists such as Bond at Barclays went as far as calling the reported rates a ``lie.''

The BBA said on April 16 that any member deliberately understating rates would be banned. The cost of borrowing in dollars for three months rose 0.18 percentage point to 2.91 percent in the following two days, the biggest increase since the start of the credit squeeze in August.

Lesley McLeod, a BBA spokeswoman in London, would only say the association's review is ``ongoing'' and a ``robust process.''

Libor would be more reliable if banks offered rates anonymously, removing the stigma of appearing like they are having trouble accessing capital, said Bond at Barclays.

More U.S. Banks

For Brian Yelvington, a strategist at bond research firm CreditSights Inc. in New York, the solution is for the BBA to insist on proof that the rates quoted are based on real transactions. That way, there would be ``no way to hide since it goes from being a poll of sorts to a confirmed trade,'' he said.

The discrepancies wouldn't have been so pronounced if Libor were set at 10 a.m. New York time, making it less skewed toward Europe, JPMorgan wrote May 16. Only three U.S. banks contribute rates to the BBA: Citigroup, Bank of America Corp. and JPMorgan.

Any changes may be little more than cosmetic as a wholesale restructuring would disrupt the global financial system, said Barry Moran, a money-market trader at Bank of Ireland in Dublin.

``But the last thing you want to be doing in the middle of a financial crisis is implementing massive changes in the way the world's benchmark rate is set,'' Moran said.

UBS, the world's biggest wealth manager, and Lloyds TSB, the U.K.'s largest provider of checking accounts, underscore the wide range in rates quoted to the BBA since July.

HSBC, RBS

UBS's three-month offered rate in dollars averaged 1.3 basis points less than Libor from July through April 15. By contrast, Lloyds TSB quoted rates that were 0.04 basis point above Libor on average. A basis point is 0.01 percentage point.

In that period UBS ousted Peter Wuffli, 50, as chief executive officer after subprime-related losses at a hedge fund run by the bank, and Chairman Marcel Ospel, 58, who helped form UBS through a merger a decade ago, stepped down. UBS has slumped to 25.84 Swiss francs in Zurich from last year's high of 77.05 francs on Feb. 9, 2007. Dominik von Arx, a UBS spokesman in London, declined to comment.

HSBC Holdings Plc, Europe's largest bank by market value, gave rates that averaged 1.4 basis points less than Libor. The London-based bank has taken $19.5 billion in writedowns and charges. Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc, the U.K.'s second- biggest bank, submitted rates that averaged 0.9 basis point below Libor. It has reported $15.3 billion in losses and writedowns.

HSBC spokesman Patrick McGuinness in London and RBS spokeswoman Carolyn McAdam in Edinburgh declined to comment.

No comments: