==What Is Libor And Why Is It Being Abandoned?
By Miranda Marquit, Benjamin Curry
Over the last decade, Libor has been burdened by scandals and crises. Effective January 2022, Libor will no longer be used to issue new loans in the U.S. It is being replaced by the Secured Overnight Financing Rate (SOFR), which many experts consider a more accurate and more secure pricing benchmark.
Libor provided loan issuers with a benchmark for setting interest rates on different financial products. It was set each day by collecting estimates from up to 18 global banks on the interest rates they would charge for different loan maturities, given their outlook on local economic conditions. Libor was calculated in five currencies: UK Pound Sterling, the Swiss Franc, the Euro, Japanese Yen and the U.S. Dollar.
The London Interbank Offered Rate was used to price adjustable-rate mortgages, asset-backed securities, municipal bonds, credit default swaps, private student loans and other types of debt. As of 2019, $1.2 trillion worth of residential mortgage loans and $1.3 trillion of consumer loans had been priced using Libor.
While Libor is no longer being used to price new loans, it will formally stick around until at least 2023. One-week and two-month Libor have ceased being published, while overnight, 1-month, 3-month, 6-month, and 12-month maturities will continue to be published through June 2023.
Each day, 18 international banks submit their ideas of the rates they think they would pay if they had to borrow money from another bank on the interbank lending market in London.
It’s important to note that Libor isn’t set on what banks actually pay to borrow funds from each other. Instead, it’s based on their submissions related to what they think they would pay. As a result, it’s possible for banks to submit lower rates and manipulate Libor fairly easily.
In the past, a panel of bankers oversaw Libor in each currency, but scandals exposing manipulation of Libor has led many national regulators to identify alternatives to Libor.
Libor is being phased out in large part because of the role it played in worsening the 2008 financial crisis, as well as scandals involving Libor manipulation among the rate-setting banks.
The use and abuse of credit default swaps (CDS) was one of the major drivers of the 2008 financial crisis. A very wide range of interrelated financial companies insured risky mortgages and other questionable financial products using CDS. Rates for CDS were set using Libor, and these derivative investments were used to insure against defaults on subprime mortgages.
American International Group (AIG) was the biggest player in the CDS disaster. The firm issued vast quantities of CDS on subprime mortgages and countless other financial products, like mortgaged-backed securities. The crash of the real estate market in 2007, followed by the even larger market meltdown in 2008, forced AIG into bankruptcy, resulting in one of the largest government bailouts in history.
Once AIG started falling apart, it became clear that failing subprime mortgages and the securities built on top of them weren’t properly insured, many banks became reluctant to lend to each other. Libor transmitted the crisis far and wide since every day Libor rate-setting banks estimated higher and higher interest rates. Libor rose, making loans more expensive, even as global central banks rushed to slash interest rates.
With rates on trillions of dollars of financial products soaring day after day, and fears about stunted bank lending reducing the flow of money through the economy, markets crashed. Libor was only one of the many factors that created the financial industry disasters of 2008, but its key role in transmitting the crisis to all parts of the global economy has driven many nations to seek safer alternatives.
In 2012, extensive investigations into the way Libor was set uncovered a widespread, long-lasting scheme among multiple banks—including Barclays, Deutsche Bank, Rabobank, UBS and the Royal Bank of Scotland—to manipulate Libor rates for profit.
Barclays was a key player in this complicated scam. Barclays would submit its Libor estimates, claiming that it was lower than what other banks actually charged it. Because a lower rate supposedly indicates a smaller risk of default, it is considered a sign that a bank is in better shape than another bank with a higher rate.
It wasn’t just Barclays, though. At UBS, one trader involved in Libor setting, Thomas Hayes, managed to rake in hundreds of millions of dollars for the bank over the course of three years. Hayes also colluded with traders at the Royal Bank of Scotland on rigging Libor. UBS executives denied all knowledge of what had been going on, although the ring managed to manipulate rate submissions across multiple institutions.
SOFR Is Replacing Libor in the U.S.
It’s not just these scandals that undercut Libor. According to ICE, banks have been changing the way they transact business, and, as a result, Libor rate became a less reliable benchmark.
SOFR is the main replacement for Libor in the United States. This benchmark is based on the rates U.S. financial institutions pay each other for overnight loans.
These transactions take the form of Treasury bond repurchase agreements, otherwise known as repos agreements. They allow banks to to meet liquidity and reserve requirements, using Treasurys as collateral. SOFR comprises the weighted averages of the rates charged in these repo transactions.