By Kirstin Ridley, Joshua Franklin and Aruna Viswanatha
LONDON/ZURICH/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Regulators fined six major banks a total of $4.3 billion for failing to stop traders from trying to manipulate the foreign exchange market, following a yearlong global investigation.
HSBC Holdings Plc, Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc, JPMorgan Chase & Co, Citigroup Inc, UBS AG and Bank of America Corp all faced penalties resulting from the inquiry, which has put the largely unregulated $5-trillion-a-day market on a tighter leash, accelerated the push to automate trading and ensnared the Bank of England.
Authorities accused dealers of sharing confidential information about client orders and coordinating trades to boost their own profits. The foreign exchange benchmark they allegedly manipulated is used by asset managers and corporate treasurers to value their holdings.
Dealers used code names to identify clients without naming them and swapped information in online chatrooms with pseudonyms such as "the players", “the 3 musketeers” and “1 team, 1 dream." Those who were not involved were belittled, and traders used obscene language to congratulate themselves on quick profits made from their scams, authorities said.
Wednesday's fines bring total penalties for benchmark manipulation to more than $10 billion over two years. Britain's Financial Conduct Authority levied the biggest penalty in the history of the City of London, $1.77 billion, against five of the lenders.
"Today's record fines mark the gravity of the failings we found, and firms need to take responsibility for putting it right," FCA Chief Executive Officer Martin Wheatley said.
He said bank managers needed to keep a closer eye on their traders rather than leaving it to compliance departments, which make sure employees follow the rules.
The investigation already has triggered major changes to the market. Banks have suspended or fired more than 30 traders, clamped down on chatrooms and boosted their use of automated trading. World leaders are expected to sign off on regulatory changes to benchmarks this weekend at the G20 summit in Brisbane, Australia.
In the United States, which has typically been more aggressive on enforcement than other jurisdictions, the Department of Justice, Federal Reserve and New York's financial regulator are still probing banks over foreign exchange trading.
Regulators said the misconduct at the banks ran from 2008 until October 2013, more than a year after U.S. and British authorities started punishing banks for rigging the London interbank offered rate (Libor), an interest rate benchmark.
The foreign exchange probe has wrapped up faster than that investigation did, and Wednesday's fines reflected cooperation from the banks. Britain's FCA said the five banks in its action received a 30 percent discount on the fines for settling early.
The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission ordered the same five banks to pay an extra $1.48 billion. Swiss regulator FINMA also ordered UBS, the country's biggest bank, to pay 134 million francs ($139 million) and cap dealers' bonuses over misconduct in foreign exchange and precious metals trading.
The U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency fined the U.S. lenders a total of $950 million. It was the only authority to penalize Bank of America.
More penalties are likely to follow. Barclays Plc, which was not included in Wednesday's settlement, said it had pulled out of talks with the FCA and the CFTC to try to seek "a more general co-ordinated settlement" with other regulators that are investigating its activities.
The FCA said its enforcement activities were focused on those five plus Barclays, signaling it would not fine Deutsche Bank AG.
The CFTC declined to comment on whether it was looking at other banks.
Britain's Serious Fraud Office is conducting a criminal investigation, and disgruntled customers can still pursue civil litigation.
RBS, which is 80 percent owned by the British government, received client complaints about foreign exchange trading as far back as 2010. The bank said it regretted not responding more quickly.
The other banks were similarly apologetic.
BANK OF ENGLAND
The currency inquiry struck at the heart of the British establishment and the City of London, the global hub for foreign exchange dealing.
The Bank of England said on Wednesday that its chief foreign exchange dealer, Martin Mallet, had not alerted his bosses that traders were sharing information.
The British central bank, whose governor, Mark Carney, is leading global regulatory efforts to reform financial benchmarks, has dismissed Mallet but said he had not done anything illegal or improper.
It also said it had scrapped regular meetings with London-based chief currency dealers, a sign the BOE wants to put a distance between it and the banks after the scandal.
Shares of banks involved in the settlement were down slightly Wednesday afternoon. Bank of America dipped 0.2 percent, JPMorgan fell 1.6 percent, and Citi was 0.6 percent lower.
RBS was down 1 percent, HSBC was down 0.3 percent, and UBS was down 0.1 percent in after-hours trading.
(1 US dollar = 0.9630 Swiss franc)
(Additional reporting by Steve Slater, Huw Jones, Jamie McGeever, Clare Hutchison and Matt Scuffham in London and Katharina Bart in Zurich; Writing by Carmel Crimmins and Emily Stephenson; Editing by Alexander Smith, Anna Willard, David Stamp and Lisa Von Ahn)