Where Will It All End for UBS?


It's the time for giving. And for Christmas this year, two former UBS traders are being given the gift of criminal indictments by the U.S. Department of Justice for manipulating the London interbank offered rate -- or LIBOR -- in the time before, during, and after the financial crash. This on top of the gift meted out earlier this week by U.S., U.K., and Swiss authorities to the bank as an entity: combined fines of $1.5 billion. Can't a bank catch a break from so much holiday generosity?

As the LIBOR turns
Apparently not UBS, nor should it. The charges against it are considerable and meaningful. The LIBOR is the world's benchmark interest rate, the rate that so many financial products in the world use as their own starting point. Mucking about with that, which the bank, and now specifically these two traders in particular, are charged with affects potentially $10 trillion in loans alone .

These criminal indictments mark a turning point in the scandal, which erupted this past June when British superbank Barclays paid fines totaling $450 million to U.S. and U.K. authorities on similar charges. Reuters is reporting that the two UBS traders -- Tom Hayes and Roger Darin -- are being charged with conspiracy; these are the first criminal indictments so far in the whole LIBOR mess.

Much ado about something
I wrote several days ago, when the story of the $1.5 billion fine broke, that while the scandal is big and meaningful, the fine is not going to hamper the Swiss banking giant's ability to do business -- not with $916 billion in cash on its balance sheet. I doubt these criminal prosecutions will do much either.

UBS, like so many other banks of its kind, is too big too fail. These fines and indictments, initially shocking as they might be, are in the end only symbolic measures, and are as much about pleasing a public hungry for some kind of post-financial crash justice as attempting to change a corrupt banking culture. In this regard, some banks are better than others, but UBS seems to be one of the worst.

The Foolish bottom line? UBS will survive this latest chapter in the still-unfolding LIBOR drama, as likely will any other banks dangling in the prosecutors' crosshairs that we've yet to hear about. For average people affected by a decade of unethical behavior by banks, this is much ado about something. For the banks -- doing quite well, thank you, after blowing up the world economy -- it's much ado about nothing. Fines? Indictments? Just the cost of doing business.

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Originally published