March 25, 2023

DealBook: Leniency Denied, UBS Unit Admits Guilt in Rate Case

UBS accepted a $1.5 billion fine for its role in manipulating interest rates.Michael Buholzer/ReutersUBS accepted a $1.5 billion fine for its role in manipulating interest rates.

UBS on Wednesday became the first big global bank in more than two decades to have a subsidiary plead guilty to fraud.

UBS, the Swiss bank, scrambled until the last minute to avoid that fate. A week ago, in a bid for leniency over interest-rate manipulation, the bank’s chairman traveled to Washington to plead his case to the Justice Department, according to people briefed on the matter. Knowing the long odds, the chairman, Axel Weber, asked the criminal division for a lighter punishment.

But the government did not budge. With support from Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., the agency’s criminal division decided the bank’s actions were simply too egregious, people briefed on the matter said.

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On Wednesday, UBS announced it would plead guilty to one count of felony wire fraud as part of a broader settlement. With federal prosecutors, British, Swiss and American regulators secured about $1.5 billion in fines, more than triple the only other rate-rigging case, against Barclays. The Justice Department also filed criminal charges against two former UBS traders.

The guilty plea and the individual charges provide the Justice Department with a long-awaited case to prove it is taking a hard line against financial wrongdoing.

Since the financial crisis, the government has faced criticism that it has not brought significant criminal actions. The money-laundering case against HSBC, which averted indictment when it agreed instead last week to pay $1.9 billion, raised more concerns that the world’s largest and most interconnected banks were too big to indict.

With UBS, prosecutors wanted to send a warning.

The Justice Department’s decision stops short of imperiling the broader financial system because it shields UBS’s parent company from losing its charter, among other major repercussions. But by securing a guilty plea against a subsidiary, the department has shown that it is willing to punish severely one of the world’s most powerful banks. It was the first guilty plea from a major financial institution since Drexel Burnham Lambert admitted to six counts of fraud in 1989.

“We are holding those who did wrong accountable,” Lanny A. Breuer, the head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, said at a news conference on Wednesday. “We cannot, and we will not, tolerate misconduct on Wall Street.”

The rate-rigging inquiry, which has ensnared more than a dozen big banks, is focused on major benchmarks like the London interbank offered rate, or Libor. Such rates are central to determining the borrowing rates for trillions of dollars of financial products like corporate loans, mortgages and credit cards.

The fallout from the UBS case is expected to increase pressure on some of the world’s largest financial institutions and spur settlement talks across the banking industry. The Royal Bank of Scotland has said it expects to pay fines before its next earnings statement in February, while American institutions, including JPMorgan Chase, also remain in regulators’ cross hairs.

The UBS case highlighted a pattern of abuse that authorities have uncovered in a multiyear investigation into the rate-setting process. The government complaints laid bare a 10-year scheme, describing how the bank had reported false rates to squeeze out extra profits and deflect concerns about its health during the financial crisis.

“The settlement reflects the magnitude of the wrongdoing and how critical it is that these be honest and reliable,” said Gary S. Gensler, chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the American regulator that opened the UBS investigation.

Six months ago, authorities did not seem ready to take an aggressive stance with UBS.

They had just scored their first Libor settlement, a $450 million payout from Barclays. UBS, which had already struck a conditional immunity deal with the Justice Department’s antitrust division, figured its penalty would be similar.

The immunity deal, some UBS executives contended, would protect the bank from criminal charges. Even officials at the Justice Department were skeptical about the prospect of levying large penalties, according to people briefed on the matter.

Then the tone shifted this fall. After examining thousands of e-mails and hours of taped phone calls, the agency’s criminal division concluded that the conduct at the Japanese subsidiary warranted a criminal charge.

Agency officials also cited the bank’s repeated run-ins with authorities. For example, the Swiss bank had agreed in 2009 to pay $780 million to settle charges that it had helped clients avoid taxes.

Not everyone in the Justice Department agreed on the course of action. According to people briefed on the matter, the antitrust unit pushed for less-onerous penalties, citing the cooperation of UBS. With officials split over how to proceed, Mr. Holder cast the deciding vote in favor of securing a guilty plea from the subsidiary.

The move caught UBS off guard. The bank dispatched dozens of lawyers to Washington to negotiate the fine print of the deal, setting up makeshift offices at the Four Seasons hotel in Georgetown.

Mr. Weber joined the lawyers, in a typical last-ditch appeal to the criminal division. Last Wednesday, Mr. Weber and his general counsel explained to the agency how UBS had overhauled its management ranks, bolstered internal controls and generally tried to clean up its act.

Mr. Breuer and other Justice Department officials agreed to consider the bank’s request to abandon the guilty plea, people briefed on the talks said. But hours later, a prosecutor phoned to say the agency was standing firm.

UBS agreed to the guilty plea, conceding that the Japanese unit would otherwise most likely face an indictment. In turn, prosecutors credited the bank for its recent efforts to improve.

“We are pleased that the authorities gave us credit for the important and positive changes we have already made,” Mr. Weber said in a statement.

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission adopted a similarly tough attitude.

Since Thanksgiving, UBS has tried to negotiate lower penalties with the regulator, according to people briefed on the matter. But David Meister, the agency’s enforcement chief, would not back down from $700 million in fines, an agency record.

“Even for a megabank, that amount serves as a direct deterrent,” said Bart Chilton, a commissioner at the regulator.

Authorities’ strict stance stems from the extent of the bank’s actions. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission cited more than 2,000 instances of illegal acts involving dozens of UBS employees across continents.

The most significant wrongdoing took place within the Japanese unit, where traders colluded with other banks and brokerage firms to tinker with yen-denominated Libor and bolster their returns.

In colorful e-mails, instant messages and phone calls, traders tried to influence the rates. “I need you to keep it as low as possible,” one UBS trader said to an employee at another brokerage firm, according to the complaint filed by the Financial Services Authority of Britain.

As the employees carried out the ostensible manipulation, they also celebrated the efforts, with one trader referring to a partner in the scheme as “superman.” “Be a hero today,” he urged, according the complaint.

The Justice Department also took aim at two former UBS traders, Tom Hayes, 33, and Roger Darin, 41, bringing the first criminal charges against individuals connected to the Libor case.

Like other traders at UBS, Mr. Hayes was willing to reward others for their efforts. He trumpeted the work of an outside broker who had helped, writing in a message, “i reckon i owe him a lot more.” Another broker responded that the person was “ok with an annual champagne shipment,” and “a small bonus every now and then.”

As prosecutors ramped up their investigation, Mr. Hayes even tried to dissuade former colleagues from cooperating, the complaint said. “The U.S. Department of Justice, mate, you know,” he said, they are the “dudes who…put people in jail. Why…would you talk to them?”

Mark Scott, Ashley Southall and Julia Werdigier contributed reporting.

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DealBook: Scrutiny Intensifies on Collusion in Rate Inquiry

A Barclays trader at the New York Stock Exchange last week.Bebeto Matthews/Associated PressA Barclays trader at the New York Stock Exchange last week.

While much of the scrutiny surrounding interest rate manipulation has centered on Barclays, regulators have said that traders at the big British bank colluded with rivals to influence a key benchmark.

As part of a three-year scheme, a senior Barclays trader in Europe worked with counterparts at Crédit Agricole, HSBC, Deutsche Bank and Société Générale, according to people with knowledge of the matter who could not speak publicly because of the investigation. Regulators are examining whether at least one other bank was involved, one of the people said.

In an effort to bolster their profits, the traders collaborated to push interest rates up or down, according to regulatory documents. By doing so, they aimed to eke out extra gains on their trades or limit losses. In its complaint against Barclays, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission described the bank’s trader as having “orchestrated an effort to align trading strategies among traders at multiple banks” to profit on their portfolios.

In June, Barclays paid $450 million to settle its case with the commission, the Justice Department and the Financial Services Authority of Britain. British and American authorities accused the bank of submitting false rates from 2005 through 2009. Regulators have also conducted investigations of others involved in the scheme.

As the rate-manipulation scandal spreads to other banks, the fallout could have major ramifications for the financial industry. Civil and criminal authorities around the world are investigating, and lawmakers in the United States have started their own inquiries. The civil and criminal actions, as well as private lawsuits, could cost the banks tens of billions of dollars.

Libor Explained

The Barclays case centers on key benchmarks, including the London interbank offered rate, or Libor, and the Euro interbank offered rate, or Euribor. Such rates are used to determine the borrowing costs for consumers and corporations. The senior trader at Barclays who worked with the four European banks specifically tried to manipulate Euribor, according to regulators.

The Barclays case was the first to emerge from the multiyear investigation, which has also touched some of the biggest banks on Wall Street. Authorities in the United States, Britain, Japan and elsewhere are also looking into the potential involvement of JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and UBS. The Financial Times previously reported the names of the four European banks that worked with the Barclays trader.

The broad investigation has prompted outrage from lawmakers in Washington and London. In recent weeks, British central bankers and regulators testified to Parliament about their role in the rate-manipulation scandal. In the United States, politicians are asking why regulators did not stop the illegal activities, even though regulators knew about potential problems as far back as 2007.

In 2008, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York suggested changes to the process, after learning that Barclays reported artificially low rates, according to documents. The regulator then shared those recommendations with the Bank of England, the British central bank. But the New York Fed did not end the rate manipulation at Barclays.

Top central bank officials are now signaling a willingness to change the system.

On Wednesday, Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of Canada, said he and other central bank chiefs would discuss ways of improving Libor, or even replacing it, when they are scheduled to meet on Sept. 17.

“In terms of alternatives, there is an attraction to moving toward, obviously, market-based rates if possible,” Mr. Carney said at a news conference. Mr. Carney currently heads the Financial Stability Board, a body consisting of central banks and finance ministries that was set up in 2009 to coordinate global financial regulation.

Mervyn A. King, governor of the Bank of England, sent a letter on Wednesday to central bank chiefs inviting them to discuss Libor reforms at another meeting scheduled for September. The Bank of England did not respond to a request for comment. Jeremy Harrison, a Bank of Canada spokesman, confirmed the existence of Mr. King’s letter and its purpose.

The United States Congress is also delving into the matter, as lawmakers question why the rate-setting process was not better policed.

Representative Randy Neugebauer, the Republican chairman of the House Financial Services subcommittee investigating Libor, is seeking documents from the New York Fed about JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and Bank of America, the three American banks involved in setting the rate. Last week, Mr. Neugebauer collected transcripts from at least a dozen phone calls in 2007 and 2008 between New York Fed officials and executives at Barclays.

The House committee has also homed in on Barclays. On Monday, Congressional staff will receive a briefing about Libor from the general counsel of Barclays in America and its chief lobbyist, according to a government official.

Peter Eavis contributed reporting.

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