Barclays and the ‘integrity’ of the market

I don’t normally do rants, but just this once —

As the story of Barclays’ attempts to rig the LIBOR rate broke, the FSA’s Director of Enforcement Tracey McDermott was reported by the BBC as saying such behaviour was “completely unacceptable … the market needs to have confidence that those who are involved in submitting numbers to set Libor are thinking about the integrity of the market, and confidence in the market, and not their own interests”.

It’s about time this myth about the ‘integrity of the market’ was exposed as nonsense and news media stopped reporting as if it were true. ‘The market’ is not some neutral impersonal force that in some mysterious way decides the financial destiny of homeowners, small businesses, banks and governments. It’s people and institutions around the globe whose sole interest is to make money (not real money, just electronic profits). It’s sovereign wealth funds moving billions of dollars at the click of a mouse. It’s hedge fund managers gambling millions of theirs and other people’s money in the hope of making a killing at someone else’s expense. It’s derivative traders worried about their exposed positions. These people are not neutral. They will happily screw one another if they can make profit for themselves, but they will equally collaborate to fix and rig if that’s profitable too – as we see with Barclays. Do we really think that a country like China isn’t aware of the impact its financial transactions have on other countries? If a country acts in a way that upsets China, or Russia, or whoever, do we think they won’t use their financial clout to put pressure on the offender’s economy? Of course they will. It used to be called ‘economic warfare’.

So when ‘the market’ decides that Spain, say, has to pay 7% to borrow over 10 years it’s not some oracle that decides, it’s people who have vested interests of their own to promote and protect. Some of them will have taken bets that Spain goes down the tubes and they’ll do what they can to make that happen – or get someone else to pay if it doesn’t. Integrity? What integrity?