For those Fools who hoped the LIBOR manipulation scandal might finally confront the sins of big banking, a judgment Friday brought a swift disappointment. A judge ruled that the collusion of 20 banks to rig the worldwide interest rate did not violate U.S. antitrust laws. In doing so, she effectively ended a majority of the private lawsuits brought against the 16 banks involved in the scandal.
As I wrote in January, regulation and fines would have little impact on the banks involved in the rate manipulation. Deutsche Bank (NYSE:DB) was found to have made at least $654 million profit in 2008 due to a rate change. It puts the fines of the other banks in perspective: Barclays' $467 million fine, UBS's $1.5 billion and Royal Bank of Scotland's $612 million.
Any impetus for change would have been led by private lawsuits, and several were filed over the past year. Lawsuits in California, New York and Illinois all alleged significant financial damages as a result of the rate manipulation. Pensions for teachers and government employees, returns for individual investors, and even mortgage rates for homeowners were all affected by the rate manipulation, claimed the lawsuits. The City of Baltimore, as lead plaintiff, claimed the rate manipulation had cost the city millions of dollars, and that the collusion was a clear violation of antitrust laws.
Early in March, JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM), Bank of America (NYSE:BAC), and several other banks involved in antitrust lawsuits claimed the rate wasn't competitive, and therefore couldn't violate antitrust laws. The judge agreed.
One bright spot in the scandal: U.K. politicians have called for an improvement of the culture and professional standards in the banking industry, and fines from the banks involved in LIBOR have gone to helping military veterans with combat stress and mental illness.
What does this mean for investors? As I wrote in December, the promise of change to a banking system fraught with financial disasters was encouraging, but actual change would be astounding. The dismissal of the lawsuits proves that change won't come. While banks may stop manipulating LIBOR, the lack of significant prosecution and/or fines proves once again that such chicanery will continue in one form or another. The only question is, what form will it take next?