Forex scandal: After record bank fines, what's next?

The foreign-exchange fines handed out to big banks set new records but will they really make any difference?

In some ways, a settlement of $5.6 billion can be seen as a major blow for these banks, both financially and for their reputations. But the share prices of several of the banks rose on the news, suggesting that the markets thought they were not as bad as expected and indeed, given their sheer size, none of the banks concerned are going to be driven to the wall by the penalties.

Currency exchange rates
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UBS, for example, has been fined a combined $545 million for rigging of interest rate and foreign-exchange markets. This represents about 2 percent of its annual cost base, or about 15 percent of its annual bonus pool for 2014 alone.

The fines are embarrassing but, let's be honest, not that punitive for institutions with such deep pockets.

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The real issue is whether there can be a shift in culture in the financial sector away from one where "anything goes so long as you can get away with it," and trust and integrity — like lunch — are strictly for wimps, to one where trust and integrity are the norm. It's not clear that corporate fines alone can do this.

The problem is that the incentives to cheat in these markets are massive. Shifting the market by a tiny fraction of a percentage point for a minute or less can generate literally millions of dollars of profits for the banks and very large bonuses for the traders involved. And that money comes from exporters and importers and institutional investors like pensions finds, and ultimately affects every one of us.

But if the incentives to cheat are large, then the way to deal with it should be clear: remove the incentives or the opportunities to cheat as far as possible and introduce even larger incentives not to cheat.

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Reducing incentives or opportunities to cheat through regulation is one avenue to explore, and the Bank of England has been doing exactly that through its Fair and Effective Markets Review, which will shortly be published. Regulating the global foreign-exchange market is notoriously difficult but there are some simple things that can be done. For example, calculating the daily reference foreign-exchange rate ("the 4pm fix") as the average over an hour rather than over a one-minute interval would make it much harder to manipulate.

In terms of incentives not to cheat, how about criminal charges being brought against some of the individuals involved? If there was a bus company with a culture of driving recklessly, the company would no doubt be investigated but the reckless bus drivers themselves would face criminal charges. No one actually gets physically injured in financial markets but a massive amount of damage is done to the international economy by rogue traders who pocket millions in bonuses as a reward for reckless behavior without the fear — so far — of criminal prosecution.

Questions will also be asked as to why no CEO or other senior figure has resigned at any of these banks. If they were in charge of an organization when these crimes were committed as a result of a cheating culture within the bank, are they not responsible for that culture? It's easy to say it was the action of a few individuals and senior management didn't know about it. The chat room bravado of the traders involved reveals how brazen they had become ("If you ain't cheating, you ain't trying," one of them quipped online). If senior management didn't know about it, then they should have known about it. Either way, they should take responsibility.

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Commentary by Mark Taylor, dean of the Warwick Business School. He is also a former foreign exchange trader and is on the Academic Advisory Group of the Bank of England's Fair and Effective Markets Review.