Secret currency traders’ club devised biggest market’s rates

It’s 20 minutes before 4 p.m. in London and currency traders’ screens are blinking red and green. Some dealers have as many as 50 chat rooms crowded onto four monitors arrayed in front of them like shields. Messages from salespeople and clients appear, get pushed up by new ones and vanish from view. Orders are barked through squawk boxes.

This is the closing “fix,” the thin slice of the day when foreign-exchange traders buy and sell billions of dollars of currency in the largely unregulated $5.3-trillion-a-day foreign- exchange market, the biggest in the world by volume, according to the Bank for International Settlements. Their trades help set the benchmark WM/Reuters rates used to value more than $3.6 trillion of index funds held by pension holders, savers and money managers around the world.

Now regulators from Bern to Washington are examining evidence first reported by Bloomberg News in June that a small group of senior traders at big banks had something else on their screens: details of each other’s client orders. Sharing that information may have helped dealers at firms, including JPMorgan Chase & Co., Citigroup Inc., UBS AG and Barclays Plc, manipulate prices to maximize their own profits, according to five people with knowledge of the probes.

“This is a market where there is no law and people have turned a blind eye,” said former Senator Ted Kaufman, a Delaware Democrat who sponsored legislation in 2010 to shrink the largest U.S. banks. “We’ve been talking about banks being too big to fail. What’s almost as big a problem is banks too big to manage.”

‘Bandits’ Club’

At the center of the inquiries are instant-message groups with names such as “The Cartel,” “The Bandits’ Club,” “One Team, One Dream” and “The Mafia,” in which dealers exchanged information on client orders and agreed how to trade at the fix, according to the people with knowledge of the investigations who asked not to be identified because the matter is pending. Some traders took part in multiple chat rooms, one of them said.

The allegations of collusion undermine one of society’s fundamental principles -- how money is valued. The possibility that a handful of traders clustered in a closed electronic network could skew the worth of global currencies for their own gain without detection points to a lack of oversight by employers and regulators. Since funds buy and sell billions of dollars of currency each month at the 4 p.m. WM/Reuters rates, which are determined by calculating the median of all trades during a 60-second period, that means less money in the pension and savings accounts of investors around the world.

‘Collusive Practices’

At stake is the integrity of a market that affects the daily valuations of private and public money alike, from the $261 billion Sacramento-based California Public Employees’ Retirement System to the $237 billion Scottish Widows Investment Partnership in Edinburgh, from the $4.1 trillion BlackRock Inc. in Manhattan, the world’s largest asset manager, to the $1.2 trillion Tokyo-based Government Pension Investment Fund, the biggest pension.

“This is a market that is far more amenable to collusive practices than it is to competitive practices,” said Andre Spicer, a professor at the Cass Business School in London, who is researching the behavior of traders.

‘Big Profits’

Unlike sales of stocks and bonds, which are regulated by government agencies, spot foreign exchange -- the buying and selling for immediate delivery as opposed to some future date -- isn’t considered an investment product and isn’t subject to specific rules.

While firms are required by the Dodd-Frank Act in the U.S. to report trading in foreign-exchange swaps and forwards, spot dealing is exempt. The U.S. Treasury exempted foreign-exchange swaps and forwards from Dodd-Frank’s requirement to back up trades with a clearinghouse. In the European Union, banks will have to report foreign-exchange derivatives transactions under the European Market Infrastructure Regulation.

A lack of regulation has left the foreign-exchange market vulnerable to abuse, said Rosa Abrantes-Metz, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business in Manhattan.

“If nobody is monitoring these benchmarks, and since the gains from moving the benchmark are possibly very large, it is very tempting to engage in such a behavior,” said Abrantes- Metz, whose 2008 paper “Libor Manipulation” helped spark a global probe of interbank borrowing rates. “Even a little bit of difference in price can add up to big profits.”

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