The $800 Trillion Scandal: How Banks' LIBOR Lies Affected You

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Barclays BankBanking scandals have grown so common that perhaps folks have simply run out of outrage. Or maybe the numbers are just too huge to wrap our mortal heads around.

Whatever it is that's behind the relatively light news coverage and lack of public debate on this incredible LIBOR rate-rigging scandal thus far, the story is not going away. In fact, it's bound to grow substantially in scope, as many of the world's largest banks have already been implicated in manipulating interest rates that are tied to some $800 trillion in loans and securities.

LIBOR -- the London Interbank Offered Rate -- is supposed to reflect the average interest rate at which banks are willing to loan funds to each other. Banks submit their daily estimates of borrowing costs for various loan durations in 10 different currencies, and after tossing out the top 25% and bottom 25% of those estimates, the LIBOR rates are calculated as an average of the remaining 50% of submissions. A separate benchmark called EURIBOR tracks borrowing costs among eurozone banks.

As revelations of widespread misconduct by multiple rate-reporting banks begin to emerge, worldwide confidence in these self-reported rates has been seriously eroded, and the banking establishment as a whole has taken another major leap downward into an abyss of well-deserved public distrust.

Barclays is Just the Tip of the Iceberg

The U.S. Department of Justice slapped U.K. banking giant Barclays (BCS) with a $160 million penalty last week, declaring that "Barclays Bank's illegal activity involved manipulating its submissions for benchmark interest rates in order to benefit its trading positions and the media's perception of the bank's financial health."

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Combining the penalties assessed by a trio of U.S. and British regulators, and the roughly $155 million that Barclays spent during the multiyear investigation, this one bank alone has incurred more than $600 million in charges. The bank's CEO, Bob Diamond, has resigned in disgrace, and the familiar Barclays name has been significantly tarnished.

Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) -- the propped-up bank in which, in a royally cruel twist of fate, British taxpayers hold an 82% stake -- will reportedly be next on the hook with penalties of $233 million for its role in the rate-setting scandal. Swiss bank UBS (UBS) received "conditional immunity" from prosecution last year in return for its cooperation with the Justice Department's ongoing investigation. Meanwhile, authorities on both sides of the Atlantic are reportedly looking into potential misconduct by, among others: Citigroup (C), HSBC (HBC), Deutsche Bank (DB), JPMorgan Chase (JPM), Lloyds, and Bank of Tokyo Mitsubishi. Now that we know who some of the players are, let's examine the stakes of their dangerous game.

Why LIBOR Matters to You

By messing with the LIBOR benchmark rates that are tied to an estimated $800 trillion of securities, the offending banks essentially played with matches in the middle of the world's largest house of leveraged cards. The combined gross domestic product of all the nations of the world is only about $70 trillion, so the towering mountain of LIBOR-connected securities out there climbs into the realm of leveraged derivatives like those that nearly brought the global financial system to its knees at the height of the 2008 credit crisis. First by building that leveraged house of cards in the first place on a completely obscene scale, and then by shaking its very foundation by manipulating the interest rates on which all that paper is based, the rate-rigging banks took unthinkable risks with the fate of the entire global financial system.

Moreover, the manipulation could have affected you personally in any number of ways. If you have an adjustable-rate mortgage or an auto loan that's tied to LIBOR, the interest charged to you could have been tweaked upward or downward depending upon the direction of a particular manipulative impact.

If you own stock, the companies in your portfolio may have been cheated out of revenue from interest rate hedges. Interest on corporate debt is often tied to LIBOR as well. As Motley Fool analyst Matt Koppenheffer pointed out, Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE) alone carries some $1 billion in debt that's tied to the LIBOR.

Pension funds, furthermore, routinely hold income-generating securities in which payments are based upon LIBOR. Municipalities likewise hedge interest rate exposures through derivatives, so your local town may have also paid the price for this horrendous behavior by the too-big-to-fail banks.

What Else Is Rigged?

A fascinating question comes to my mind as I consider the implications of LIBOR-gate: If a dozen or more banks can collectively manipulate something as central to the everyday functioning of our economic system as LIBOR, and in the process play games with an $800 trillion mountain of leveraged securities, is there any corner of our financial markets that can be deemed safe from such reckless and deceptive behavior? A number of astonishing scandals over recent years have shattered the industry's image, and collectively they portray a culture of corruption that is disturbingly pervasive.

I am utterly convinced, for example, that gold and silver prices have been routinely manipulated by certain banks to deflect attention from the weak condition of the major paper currencies. We know that a subsidiary of JPMorgan Chase is under investigation for alleged energy-market manipulation. And a slew of banks have been implicated in a municipal bond-rigging scandal that, in the words of Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi, reveals "the astonishing inner workings of the reigning American crime syndicate."

I'm quite certain that plenty of good, honest people working in the banking industry are just as outraged as we are by these sorts of revelations. But unfortunately there is but one inescapable conclusion to draw from LIBOR-gate and the vast array of 21st-century banking scandals: Where opportunity and motive coincide for banks to pursue their own agenda through secretive and unsavory means, it seems far safer to presume that they will rather than to trust that they will not.
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The $800 Trillion Scandal: How Banks' LIBOR Lies Affected You

BOK (BOKF) is the smallest bank on the list with a $3.8 billion market value and $26 billion in assets. The bank holding company is based in Tulsa, Okla., but its branches operated under several names in other states: Bank of Albuquerque, Bank of Arizona, Bank of Arkansas, Bank of Kansas City, Bank of Oklahoma, Bank of Texas and Colorado State Bank and Trust. BOK is worth about 12.5 times earnings and is valued at 1.3 times book value. The return on equity is 11%, and it offers a 2.7% dividend yield to the common holders. Shares are trading around $56.00, and Wall Street analysts have a target above $59.00.

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KeyCorp (KEY) is the one exception in our list to our rule about share prices under $10. Its other metrics more than make up for this. It has a market cap of just $7.12 billion against some $87 billion in assets. It operates in 14 states throughout the Rocky Mountain, Northwest, the Great Lakes and Northeast regions. To make its appearance on this list even more impressive, KeyCorp is headquartered is in Cleveland, where a large number of now-troubled loans were issued. The bank has a return on equity of 9.2% and pays out a 2.7% dividend yield. Shares trade around $7.50 but have a target price of $9 from Wall Street.

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PNC (PNC) is based in Pittsburgh and has almost $300 billion in assets, with over 2,500 branches and almost 7,000 ATMs in 14 states. It has a market cap of $31.01 billion, and its stock is valued at 10.6 times earnings and at less than 0.9 times book value. The return on equity is 8.9%, and the company pays out a 2.73% dividend. Shares are trading at under $59, but Wall Street is eyeing a price of $70.50. PNC was even strong enough financially to close its National City acquisition at the end of 2008 when there was so much fear in the financial markets. PNC also owns almost a quarter of the great asset-management firm BlackRock (BLK).

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M&T Bank Corporation (MTB) is based in Buffalo, N.Y., and now has more than $79 billion in assets. Excluding any small purchases made recently, M&T had nearly 700 branches, 2,000 ATMs and a presence in eight states. The market cap is $10.12 billion, its P/E ratio is 12.7, and its price-to-book value ratio is only 1.07. M&T has a return on equity of 9.5% and pays out a dividend of 3.5% to common stockholders. The stock is trading just north of $80 a share, but analysts have set a target price of about $90. Berkshire Hathaway owns almost 5.4 million M&T Bank common shares worth more than $400 million.

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U.S. Bancorp (USB) is often overlooked as a money-center bank because it is a super-regional located in Minneapolis. But it's the fifth-largest commercial bank in the United States and caters to millions of consumers. With $341 billion in assets, more than 3,000 branch locations and more than 5,000 ATMs, its operations are spread out over 25 states in America. Berkshire Hathaway owns some 69 million shares worth more than $2.1 billion. The bank's market cap is $59 billion. It is worth about 10 times earnings and 1.6 times book value. The return on equity is very high at 16%, and it offers a 2.5% dividend yield to the common holders. Shares are trading around $31.50, and Wall Street analysts have a target of about $34.25 on this great, safe bank.

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Despite the media attention surrounding the JPMorgan's (JPM) multibillion-dollar trading loss, the firm is still in good shape compared to many of its peers. It has a fortress-like balance sheet with about $2.3 trillion in assets, and CEO Jamie Dimon has said the only thing that could lead to the bank's failure is a collision of the Earth and Moon. Despite a share price decline following news of the "London Whale" trading loss, the company still has a sizable market cap of $135.17 billion. Shares trade at less than 8 times earnings and only about 0.7 times book value. The return on equity is 9.8%, and the company pays a dividend yield of 3.4% on the common stock. While the bank shares are trading at just over $36, analysts value the company at $47 a share.

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Wells Fargo (WFC) is the undisputed safest bank in America now that JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) has come under scrutiny -- even if Chase has about $1 trillion more in assets. With some 6,200 storefront branches, more than 12,000 ATMs and an asset base of over $1.3 trillion, it has a presence in almost every state. Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway owns close to $13 billion worth of the common stock, and his stake keeps rising. The market cap is a whopping $171 billion. The shares trade at less than 9 times earnings and at almost 1.2 times book value. The return on equity is just above 12%, and it offers a 2.7% dividend yield to the common holders. While shares trade at around $32.50, Wall Street analysts value the bank at almost $38 per share.

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Motley Fool contributor Christopher Barker can be found on Twitter here. He owns no shares in the companies mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup.

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