Reforming LIBOR: Wheatley versus the Alternatives
NYU Journal of Law & Business, Vol. 9, No. 2, 2013
63 Pages Posted: 1 Feb 2013 Last revised: 26 Feb 2013
Date Written: January 31, 2013
The London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) is the trimmed average interest rate for interbank loans by a panel of leading London banks. LIBOR is the most widely used benchmark rate. An estimated $350 trillion in financial products are based on the LIBOR rate.
In late June 2012, a major scandal broke when Barclays PLC — one of the panel banks whose rates went into calculating LIBOR — agreed to pay $453 million in fines to UK and US regulators to settle allegations that Barclays had attempted to manipulate the LIBOR rate. The probe by multiple national regulators around the world quickly spread to include several other global banks.
In response, the United Kingdom’s Chancellor of the Exchequer charged a commission led by Martin Wheatley with conducting an independent review of the setting and usage of LIBOR. In September 2012, Wheatley released a report proposing a comprehensive 10-point reform plan. In October, the UK Government announced that it accepted “the recommendations of Martin Wheatley’s independent review of LIBOR in full.”
Even though Wheatley’s recommendations likely will have been implemented by the time this article appears in print, they are still deserving of analysis. First, changes and amendments may be necessary to further improve the process, perhaps including some of those suggested in this Article. Second, while LIBOR is one of the most important benchmark rates, it is not the only such rate. Some of these other benchmarks are already under scrutiny. Assessing the merits of various LIBOR reforms therefore may be helpful as regulators evaluate whether these other benchmark rates require similar reform.
In light of LIBOR’s systemic importance as a global interest rate benchmark and the compelling evidence of rate manipulation by panel banks, reforming LIBOR was both a political and economic incentive. This Article explores a number of alternatives that were available to the UK government.
The Article concludes that leaving the problem to market forces had failed and, moreover, was politically unfeasible. Switching to a government-supplied alternative benchmark was both impractical and unwise as a policy matter, as was installing a government agency as a replacement for BBA as the LIBOR administrator. Although vesting the LIBOR administrator with sufficiently strong intellectual property rights to ensure an adequate stream of licensing fees to provide adequate incentives for the administrator and panel banks is an important part of a reform package, but — contrary to what some commentators have suggested — is not viable as a stand-alone reform.
In contrast to the alternatives, the Wheatley Review provides a comprehensive reform package that has proven politically attractive and seems likely to significantly enhance LIBOR’s credibility and attractiveness as a interest rate benchmark. To be sure, the Wheatley regime is not perfect. To the contrary, this Article suggests a number of ways in which it can be expanded and improved. Over all, however, the analysis of the Wheatley Review herein strongly suggests that it will prove a viable starting point as a blueprint for reforming LIBOR and other interest rate benchmarks.
Keywords: London Interbank Offering Rate, LIBOR, benchmark, intellectual property, property rights, banks, financial reform
JEL Classification: K22
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation