This week a major scandal came to light with regard to the setting of LIBOR, which is the interest rate at which banks lend to each other. It would appear that this rate, which is a useful index of short-term interest rates by which interest rates on other contracts (including mortgages) are set, was manipulated by traders in a particular financial institution. Presumably this was done for their own gain – at the expense of others who were counterparties to the contracts.
There have been the predictable calls for regulation. The French have said that this is a problem of rampant Anglo-Saxon capitalism which needs regulating – ignoring the fact that euribor uses a more or less identical system. Mark Hoban – the relevant government minister – has said both that this is a moral problem and that LIBOR should be regulated. Others have said that the problem is that we have nationalised central banks setting interest rates. Still elsewhere, it has been suggested that the problem is that we have a banking cartel and we need more competition.
The latter two positions have been taken by respected free-market commentators, but I don’t think they are correct. Certainly, central banks distort LIBOR. They do this both because they determine very-short-term interest rates which feed into LIBOR indirectly and also because they try to smooth liquidity in the market. However, even if central banks did not do this, there would probably be a need for something like LIBOR as a base interest rate that is used to set interest rates on other financial transactions. In fact, LIBOR is a very useful market instrument because it means that banks can lend to and take deposits from customers at a rate which is always related to an objective and transparent market interest rate. Customers can be sure that they will not get taken for a ride. At the same time, the bank will know that it can always get funding for or make deposits at roughly that rate. Without LIBOR long-term, floating-rate mortgages would be that much more risky.
The bank cartel argument is also something of a red herring. Yes, it is true that the smaller the number of banks, the easier it is to manipulate the rate, but there are 16 banks on the sterling LIBOR panel, so the cartel argument is stretching things somewhat.
However, the main threat comes from those who only have the regulatory hammer and think that regulation is the only solution to any problem.
Older readers of the blog may remember the Maxwell scandal. This was a case of theft from a pension fund. Not surprisingly, theft of hundreds of millions of pounds is illegal. But, the government thought that, rather than making some simple changes to primary legislation to make theft less likely (for example, by having more independent trustees within pension funds), they would regulate defined-benefit pension schemes. Older readers of this blog might also remember private-sector, defined-benefit pension schemes. Younger readers cannot join them anymore because the regulation hammer (and some other factors) led to the vast majority closing down.
We must be careful with regard to the LIBOR scandal. The British Bankers Association (
But, surely, the main problem is not regulation in any case. Given Britain’s strict libel laws, I need to tread carefully. However, if what has happened is not fraud (and it is not being prosecuted as such at the moment) it ought to be. We do not need a specific government financial regulator to prosecute fraud and theft.
Secondly, as the minister has said, there is a moral and cultural issue here. Regulation is the wrong tool to deal with moral and cultural issues.
We have a confused regulatory system here. Instead of blaming private regulation we should perhaps go the whole hog and remove government regulation from the picture. LIBOR is a private arrangement and the banks that set it have the strongest incentives to keep it honest. The government should stick to prosecuting fraud. The private sector institutions that have an interest in LIBOR should club together and make sure that they impose the strongest possible penalties on those that disobey the letter or the spirit of the LIBOR regulations set by the