Economic Outlook: Minding the store

By ANTHONY HALL, United Press International  |  Sept. 6, 2012 at 9:24 AM
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State attorneys general are seriously licking their chops over the possibility of big settlements over Libor manipulation.

Janet Cowell, the elected state treasurer of North Carolina told The New York Times the case involved "an unprecedented level of analysis and an unprecedented wide spectrum of financial impact," an interesting footnote that revolves in part around the point that it is hard to figure out just who got taken to the cleaners and by how much.

British banking giant Barclays has agreed to a $450 million settlement to shake off charges stemming from Libor manipulation -- Libor being a benchmark lending rate, technically the London inter bank offered rate, that is the average of big bank borrowing costs calculated by the British Bankers Association.

A handful of big banks send in their borrowing costs and the resulting Libor is used to calculate the interest rate on a variety of commercial and personal loans, including mortgages and student loans.

Allegedly, Barclays sent in artificially low numbers to make the bank look healthier than it was.

Who did that hurt, exactly? For all that, arguably putting a new sign in front of the bank and advertising in general makes a bank appear healthier than it is.

Yes, lying is not the respectable or legal way to promote a bank's health -- lying outside the confines of generalities in advertising, that is.

Cowell, however, said that she expected the Libor case to result in a settlement as large as the recent settlement with five major banks that took shortcuts during the foreclosure process.

Attorneys general in that case were handed a soft ball. Banks were rushing mountains of foreclosure cases through the courts and cutting legal corners to do so. Proving this was, essentially, a foregone conclusion.

If memory serves, however, in the early going a quote from bank officials would appear periodically asking if there was any evidence of a foreclosure on a home that should not have occurred. Yes, they stupidly cut corners, depriving homeowners of due process. But not many homeowners ended up in the wrong place. They would have lost their homes, anyway, the bankers said.

Eventually, these officials learned to put away the "no harm, no foul" defense and in the end not dotting the i(s) and crossing the t(s) cost five banks $26 billion.

More recently, The New York Times said that state officials are groping around trying to find out how Libor manipulation may have hurt anyone. That's one of the reasons the investigation is taking so long.

Sure, if you hear an explosion it is customary to ask around to see if anyone got hurt. And sometimes the wounds are less obvious than at other times. Maybe someone is being stuck and just hasn't figured it out yet.

To quote the newspaper, Cowell's work "also suggests just how difficult it is, and how long it may take, to get to the bottom of the losses," in the Libor case.

On the face of it, of course, several banks would have to coordinate their manipulations to have an actual impact on the benchmark Libor. Otherwise, Barclays could be low-balling on the same day that Bank of America was pushing the Libor higher. If the sins cancel each other out, how is that going to figure into the final settlement?

The moral of the story: These banks are making it very easy for the public to get very angry. Secondly, to paraphrase a Ron White comedy album, you can't regulate stupid.

In international markets, the Nikkei 225 index in Japan was flat, gaining 0.01 percent, while the Shanghai composite index in China rose 0.7 percent. The Hang Seng index in Hong Kong added 0.34 percent, while the Sensex in India gained 0.19 percent.

The S&P/ASX 200 in Australia was 0.8 percent higher.

In midday trading in Europe, the FTSE 100 index in Britain added 0.6 percent, while the DAX 30 in Germany jumped 1.27 percent. The CAC 40 in France climbed 1.18 percent, while the Stoxx Europe 600 rose 0.78 percent.

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