News & Current Affairs
06 January 2015
by Elizabeth Knight
Will this be Australia's biggest scandal of 2015? - Bill swap rate fixing is a scandal in waiting
The big four banks would have to be in the firing line given they are the major players in the market.
If the Australian Securities and Investments Commission can establish that big banks have featured in the manipulation of the bank bill swap rate, it could well prove to be the largest corporate scandal of 2015.
A clutch of large trading and investment banks are being investigated by the corporate regulator for colluding in order to tamper with this interest rate to generate profits estimated to be in the hundreds of millions. Details of those potentially involved are starting to dribble out into the public domain.
It is probably the tip of the iceberg.
It doesn't generate mass public interest in the same way as bank financial adviser misbehaviour, because the superannuants and personal investors don't feel directly affected.
But with any collusion there are victims – those who trade in the market and are counter-parties are the losers.
A 10-strong team from the Australian Securities and Investments Commission has been on the case for more than a year and has taken three scalps – investment banks BNP Paribas, Royal Bank of Scotland and UBS, all of which have been fined more than $1 million.
But the big Australian trading banks – the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, the National Australia Bank, Westpac and ANZ – would have to be in the firing line given they are the major players in the market.
The only one of the four majors to have taken a recognisable stance is the ANZ, which has suspended seven of its bank bill swap rate traders – one of whom was outed this week, Etienne Alexiuo, who who heads the bank's balance sheet trading and oversees a portfolio worth more than $120 billion.
His name will mean little outside the small world of derivatives trading, but these high-octane operatives oversee billions of dollars and their multimillion salaries reflect the fact that these rainmakers can earn (or lose) their banks millions each year.
They are the Masters of the Universe equivalents.
ANZ has launched its own internal investigation into the BBSR trading, a move other banks may also have taken but have not made public.
ANZ still has the seven suspended traders on full salary and is admitting no liability.
This is something the bank's spokesman stresses, saying:
"It's important to bear in mind that the decision to stand people down was a precautionary measure and that no determination has been made by ANZ regarding any individual staff member."
The reality is that this market is dominated by about 14 players and for it to be manipulated, other big players need to be involved.
Such was the case in the UK, where the Libor (London Interbank Offered rate) was found to have been manipulated by some of the market's big participants, many of which have been subsequently prosecuted.
But as is usually the case, the Australian corporate regulator is doing its best to keep its investigation under wraps. It confirmed that it is investigating the matter and that ANZ was under the microscope, but only after the bank outed itself.
It is not surprising that other major trading banks were not prepared to talk about the bank bill swap rate investigation. It's a no-fly zone from a public relations perspective.
Westpac told BusinessDay on Monday that "ASIC is conducting an industry-wide investigation into BBSW. Westpac, and we understand a number of other banks, has received notices and inquiries from ASIC in relation to its investigations."
Thus the question arises around how these dark arts-type interest rate trading desks can potentially move billion-dollar trading markets without being detected by the head office boffins that put such stock in their compliance procedures.
For a long time the interest rate swaps desks were the domain of the bank's proprietary traders but in recent times trades have been dominated by corporate customer transactions. In this respect trading income will reflect fee income rather than the generation of proprietary profits.
But the old culture of risk-taking for big rewards is said to still be alive in the interest rates and prop desk area.
Those that use the bank's balance sheet to generate profit are referred to as balance sheet traders and, according to the Australian Financial Review, the practice of "front running", or trading ahead of large customer orders, remains prevalent in Australia.
Forensically analysing this behaviour will be in the mix of investigations now being undertaken by the regulator, who it is said is trawling through the email correspondence of the big participants.
Those investment banks already pinged by ASIC have received relatively minor penalties, with the fines being directed into projects such as enhancement of financial literacy.
But there will be an expectation that if there are bigger culprits the penalties will be stiffer and the public relations ramifications greater.
ASIC is giving no timetable on when its investigations will be complete but logic suggests the 2015 calendar year would be sufficient to see closure.