Monday, August 6, 2012

Will India learn from this biggest banking scandal?

Cartelisation! Over the last one year, this has been one term that has got many Indian companies penalised by the Competition Commission of India (CCI). The allegations have been that firms within the same industry colluded together to manipulate prices.

But this is too trivial compared to what we are just going to tell you about. Imagine a cartel of big global banks manipulating the global financial system. We are referring to the Libor banking scandal. For a lay Indian, this may not be quite a popular term. But in the global financial system, it is a very crucial pivot. For starters, Libor stands for London interbank offered rate, the rate at which banks think they can lend and borrow money themselves. Libor is a globally accepted benchmark interest rate for over US$ 350 trillion in financial products.

Regulators are said to be of the view that the manipulation of the Libor interest rate was the result of "organised fraud". As per news agency Thomson Reuters, Barclays paid a hefty fine of about US$ 453 m to authorities in the US and the UK to settle allegations that some of its traders had colluded with employees at other banks to manipulate Libor. Several other financial institutions are reportedly under the scanner of regulators for their alleged role in the fraud. This comes as another striking evidence of the threat big banks and financial institutions pose to the health of the global economy. But they are not the only ones to be blamed. Such scandals also reflect the negligence of the regulators. What were they doing all this while? Worse still, these are the same too-big-to-fail institutions that the central banks rescue in times of crisis.

What lessons does this financial scandal have for India? It must be noted that in 1998, the Mumbai inter-bank offer rate, referred to as Mibor, was set up on the lines of Libor. The Mibor acts as a benchmark rate for all interest rate swaps, forward rate agreements, floating rate debentures and term deposits. Though most key interest rates in India are benchmarked by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), the Libor scandal may be a reminder for the Indian central bank to ensure adequate checks and balances to ensure that a similar fraud does not occur in India. Already discussions are underway to switch to an actual screen-based traded price of Mibor as the current system could be susceptible to manipulation. We really hope the Indian bank regulator and the banks initiate appropriate steps to avoid a similar disaster in our country.

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