Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Banks Guilty of Colluding to Set Euro-Dollar Exchange-Rate Basis: Toward a Competitive Market

In May 2015, Citicorp, JPMorgan Chase, Barclays, and the Royal Bank of Scotland both acknowledged colluding to set the “fix” rate in foreign exchange markets, and agreed both to change their internal cultures and pay criminal fines of over $2.5 billion.[1] The U.S. Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, stated that her department would “vigorously prosecute all those who tilt the economic system in their favor; who subvert our marketplaces; and who enrich themselves at the expense of American customers.”[2] I submit that this does not go far enough, given the size and power of the banks and the condition of the sector.

Private gain at the expense of the public good is an old story. Corporations give to Congressional campaigns at least in part in hopes of being able to bend federal lawmakers to insert and approve a loophole that would keep the good of the whole from constraining quite so much the particular private interests. To be viable in the long term, a republic—even a republic of republics—must privilege the public good over potentially overweening private interests; otherwise, the implicit message can only be that anything goes—provided a company’s head knows where to send the dollars.

In using “a private electronic chatroom to manipulate the spot market’s exchange rate between euros and dollars using coded language to conceal their collusion,” the banks, or “The Cartel” as they referred to their group, “acted as partners—rather than competitors—in an effort to push the exchange rate in directions favorable to their banks but detrimental to many others.”[3] In other words, the banks acted as price-makers rather than price-takers; the market could not, therefore, be considered competitive. I submit that Lynch did not go far enough in settling for an acknowledgement of wrong-doing, promised change of internal cultures, and a fine; they do necessarily result in a competitive marketplace. Lynch said that the “penalty all these banks will now pay is fitting considering the long-running and egregious nature of their anticompetitive conduct” as well as “the pervasive harm done.”[4] Perhaps this so in terms of the size of the fine, but in giving the public confidence that the market would from then on be competitive. If firms in an industry are large enough that four of them colluding can set a price or rate, then the industry is oligarchic. To move it to a competitive basis, governmental action breaking up the largest firms (including in terms of ownership) is necessary. The justification lies in the value of the public good when economic liberty and property rights threaten to compromise the good of the whole.

To be sure, the U.S. Government would only be able to break up Citicorp and JPMorgan. Lest it be claimed that the resulting smaller firms would have less wherewithal to compete with Barclays and the Royal Bank of Scotland (as well as other banks), shedding less profitable divisions and focusing on developing a specialty-area can result in higher profits (i.e., from the sale of premium goods). Had lawmakers and President Obama given the U.S. Government the authority to break up financial institutions that have an unacceptable level of system risk (i.e, that a bank’s collapse could paralyze the entire financial system given the impact of high volatility on the market mechanism adjusting for risk), breaking up the largest American banks would not only make the sector more competitive, but also reduce the banks’ respective systemic risks. Were a crisis and ensuing short-sellers’ run on the banks occur, holding more dollars in reserves might not buy a bank much more time. It did not take long for Lehman Brothers to run through its cash once the short-sellers set in.

In short, the U.S. Attorney General could have taken a more systemic view and a related pro-active approach oriented beyond holding the banks accountable by including measures that would have provided the public with more confidence that the sector would be more competitive in the future.

1. Loretta Lynch, “Attorney General Lynch Delivers Remarks at a Press Conference on Foreign Exchange Spot Market Manipulation,” The U.S. Department of Justice, May 20-, 2015.
2. Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4. Ibid. Lynch said that the banks’ concerted actions “inflated the banks’ profits while harming countless consumers, investors and institutions around the globe—from pension funds to major corporations, and including the banks’ own customers—who placed their faith in the market and relied on it to produce a competitive exchange rate.” Ibid.