The week explained: price fixing

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 October, 2012, 11:52am

Is this a scene from a B-movie showing a room of self-satisfied men in suits conspiring to rig financial markets? They are confident that the suckers won't find out what they are doing, knowing that they have the power to make this deal work which will bring them rich rewards.

Well, it appears that something not too far removed from this piece of fiction turned out to be fact. Regulators discovered that the small group of bankers who fix the London interbank offered rate, or Libor, decided to rig the market and raise interest rates so they could make an illicit buck. The mighty Barclays Bank has admitted being part of this conspiracy and paid out £290 million (HK$3.6 billion) in penalties. Other banks remain under suspicion.

The scam has led regulators in London to reform the way that Libor is set. This is a key benchmark lending rate that affects interest rates around the world, and the cost of common instruments such as your mortgage.

Of local interest is the fact that the man leading this reform effort is Martin Wheatley, the managing director of Britain's Financial Services Authority and previously chief executive of the Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission.

Maybe Wheatley's six-year stint as a Hong Kong regulator made him more aware of market rigging as he was in the thick of a drive to clamp down on insider trading and had to have noticed the many ways in which major sectors of the local economy, starting with the property market, are effectively rigged in favour of a number of key players.

Libor should have attracted more public attention as it was devised by bankers to minimise their risks on long-term loans threatened by inflation and increased money supply. They came up with the idea of linking loans to a floating rate that they themselves would adjust.

Reforming Libor has also produced welcome scrutiny to a host of indices and benchmarks that have a considerable influence on how much people are paying for goods and services while labouring under the illusion that the prices are set by market forces.

The US Commodity Futures Trading Commission has been asked to examine 1,600 kinds of US contracts that may be exposed to the kind of rate-fixing seen at Libor.

And it doesn't end there. The European Union and the Japanese government were rattled by the Libor scandal and are setting up reviews to see what can be done to cut the risk of rigged contracts.

The international shipping industry enjoyed a century of fixing rates, affecting world trade, until US regulations came in in 2010. However it is a brave or foolish person who believes that this produced a really free market in transportation by sea.

On a smaller level, but rather relevant to Asia, was the infamous MSG or monosodium glutamate cartel operated by six companies from Japan, Korea and Taiwan that controlled the price of this food ingredient and preservative, the cartel is allegedly bust but it is hard to be sure how much of a free market exists in MSG.

Opec openly manipulates the price of oil. Opec's power waned as non-member nations, such as Britain and Norway, became big players in the market, undermining Opec's agreements.

Yet, when you read, for example, that the price of (British) Brent oil is so many dollars do you believe this is determined by the market? If you do, you are plain wrong because that price, like the prices set by Opec, is effectively a producer-set price, buffeted by supply and demand but not wholly determined by these factors.

Libor is tottering while other benchmarks have yet to be dented.