Six major banks have been fined more than $4bn as regulators punished them for their role in a foreign exchange rate-rigging scandal that once again called into question the integrity of global financial markets.
The tally of the fines, agreed in separate settlements with UBS, Citi, JPMorgan Chase, HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland and Bank of America, is already close to the $6bn paid so far over the long-running Libor rate-rigging probe. Other regulators including the US Department of Justice, which is known for levying heavy fines, are still investigating.
The UK’s Financial Conduct Authority cleared four other institutions – although they still face probes by other regulators.
The penalties prompted questions over whether bankers have learnt their lessons after the scandal over the rigging of Libor – the interbank lending benchmark. In its decision to mete out record fines of £1.1bn to five banks, the FCA cited a failure to improve their controls in the wake of Libor.
The watchdog said the forex misconduct was carried on from 2008 until October 15 2013 – several months into the launch of its probe and more than a year after the first Libor settlement with a bank, which was Barclays.
Barclays was part of the forex settlement talks with the FCA and US authorities, but it pulled out of the deal at the last minute saying it had decided to seek “a more general co-ordinated settlement” with other regulators.
Unlike the banks that settled, Barclays is also being probed by New York’s Department of Financial Services which told the UK lender it was not ready yet to be part of a settlement, people close to the situation said. The FCA said it was continuing its forex investigations into the bank.
At UBS, the failings occurred despite the fact that it received whistleblower reports over two years alleging misconduct by forex traders, the FCA said. At RBS, they occurred despite two client complaints over confidentiality issues.
In addition to the FCA, the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission fined the same five banks $1.5bn for “attempted manipulation of, and for aiding and abetting, other banks’ attempts to manipulate, global foreign exchange benchmark rates to benefit the positions of certain traders”.
JPMorgan, Citi and Bank of America – the only bank not to be part of the FCA and CFTC settlement – were also hit by the US Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which regulates banks, with $950m in penalties and ordered to “correct deficiencies and enhance oversight of their FX trading activity”.
The fines took the total issued by US regulators this year to $56.5bn, making it the most expensive year for banks since 2007, according to research by the Financial Times.
In groups that called themselves “the players”, “the 3 musketeers” and “a co-operative”, traders were found to have attempted over a period of almost six years to have rigged key forex benchmarks, including at least one provided by central banks, according to FCA settlement documents.
Using chat rooms, traders were also found to have attempted to trigger clients’ stop-loss orders – a specified level to sell the currency to limit potential losses – for their own benefit. They also shared confidential information about client orders, the FCA’s investigation “Operation Dovercourt” uncovered.
“How can I make free money with no fcking [sic] heads up,” read one of the chatroom messages published by the FCA.
While the FCA’s group settlement marks an unusually quick finale for its investigation into a core group of banks roughly 18 months after it started its preliminary probe, it does not bring the scandal to an end.
The probe has triggered a cascade of further civil, criminal and antitrust investigations by 20 authorities worldwide against more than 15 banks over allegations of collusion and manipulation in the forex market.
Martin Wheatley, chief executive of the FCA, said the forex market needed much tighter regulation. “At the end of the day companies might have lax controls that allow bad things to happen but it’s people that do bad things,” he said.
George Osborne, UK chancellor, said “tough action” had been taken to clean up “corruption by a few”.
Aitan Goelman, the CFTC’s director of enforcement, stated: “The market only works if people have confidence that the process of setting these benchmarks is fair, not corrupted by manipulation by some of the biggest banks in the world.”
The CFTC’s highest fines, $310m each, went to Citi and JPMorgan.
The OCC hit JPMorgan and Citi with civil penalties of $350m each and BofA paid $250m. BofA was not part of the group under investigation by the UK.
UBS paid the highest single penalty, of $371m, to the FCA. All of the fines were above £216m, which make them the highest FCA penalties ever levied, breaking the record previously held by UBS, which paid £160m to the FCA in 2012 over Libor rigging.
Switzerland’s financial regulator, Finma, separately also settled with UBS with a SFr134m ($138m) fine for “serious misconduct” in its forex and precious metals businesses.
Sergio Ermotti, UBS chief executive, said: “Today’s resolutions are an important step in our transformation process and towards closing this industry-wide matter for UBS. We continue to co-operate with related ongoing investigations.”
All the five banks, in separate statements, said they were concerned by the misconduct and added that they had made improvements to their systems and controls to better guard against improper trader behaviour.
The investigations have turned large currency dealers’ trading units upside down, ushering in a wave of proposed regulatory changes to forex benchmarks and prompting a shake-out among banks’ staff as well as an accelerated push towards electronic trading.
RBS said that it was reviewing the conduct and had suspended the vesting of bonuses for more than 50 current and former members of trading staff around the world as well as dozens of supervisors and senior management responsible and accountable for this business.
Additional reporting Gina Chon and James Shotter
Letters in response to this report:
Get alerts on Financial & markets regulation when a new story is published