Other banks may soon follow suit and here’s why: The Justice Department is investigating alleged collusion of currency markets by a group of traders from several banks, including Citigroup (C), Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), UBS (UBS) and Deutsche Bank (DB). The bankers communicated via instant messaging and at least one trader is cooperating with authorities, The New York Times reports.
The fact the group called themselves “The Cartel” isn’t likely to help them in the court of public opinion, much less with the feds.
“The manipulation we’ve seen so far may just be the tip of the iceberg,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told The Times. “We’ve recognized that this is potentially an extremely consequential investigation.”
Holder may have meant something else, but what’s really “consequential” here is that the roughly $5 trillion per day foreign exchange market is largely unregulated. And if we’ve learned anything from recent history it’s that unregulated markets have a habit of causing systemic risk for the global economy and/or are ripe for manipulation.
In the past 18 months, revelations have occurred about manipulation in a variety of global markets, including:
- The LIBOR Market, the global benchmark for interest rates.
- Foreign exchange trading, both in the U.K. and now globally.
- Singapore’s version of LIBOR (which stands for London Interbank Offered Rate)
- Brent crude
- Various physical commodities, including aluminum
To repeat what I wrote the other day in discussing allegations of manipulation in Brent crude, the global energy benchmark: Any market where prices are set by a group of individuals -- or a few companies -- rather than actual, exchange-based trades are highly likely to be manipulated.
This truth, which I hold to be self-evident, has a direct effect on prices consumers pay for everyday goods like gasoline and the interest rate on credit cards and other loans. There’s also a more subtle and long-term implication: Revelations of widespread market manipulation undermines society’s faith in the integrity of the financial system, which in turn undermines society itself, particularly those purportedly based on free market capitalism.
There’s a reason why anti-Wall Street populism sells and JPMorgan’s attempted Twitter-chat this week was overwhelmed by negative sentiment. And it’s not because the average guy (and gal) resents people who are successful.
Even Alan Greenspan eventually realized that markets won’t “self police” and the regulatory pendulum is most definitely swinging away from anti-regulatory zeal of the 1990s and early 2000s. Whatever the fallout of this may be Wall Street only has itself – and its culture of corruption -- to blame.