James Moore: Diamond got a rough deal as Barclays took first blow in punishment for Libor

  • @TheIndyBusiness

Was there just a hint of schadenfreude in the air at Barclays' HQ yesterday morning? After months of promises, someone else finally got it in the neck for attempting to fix Libor (and Euribor) interest rates. And how.

UBS is coughing up $1.5bn (£925m) to regulators on both sides of the pond. Its traders also played around with yen Libor (Yibor?), and they didn't just promise bottles of Bollinger for mucking about with the figures. The inducements came in cold hard cash, and lots of it. On one occasion $100,000. You could buy a crate of Bolly for that.

At least 45 people were involved, and it seems that what was going on wasn't exactly a secret. It was discussed in internal chatrooms, group emails and such like. And yet still compliance staff, who conducted five "audits", managed to miss it.

Barclays' misdeeds were carried out by a much smaller group of traders, and it copped a plea at an earlier stage of the process than UBS.

When its misdeeds were revealed, Barclays' rather despairing claim that it was doing the right thing by co-operating rather got lost in the firestorm which engulfed the bank. It doesn't excuse what its traders did, or the depressing culture that flourished there, but UBS does put what happened at Barclays, and how it responded, in context.

So let's conduct a thought experiment here: would Bob Diamond still be Barclays' chief executive if UBS, rather than Barclays, had faced the music first? There's good reason for thinking he would be.

There is no doubt that Barclays would have faced a richly deserved kicking had it gone second. But Barclays, a rarity in that it has a smart in-house communications team, would at least have been able to consider the reaction to the UBS fines and prepare a public relations plan on the back of them. This would likely have amounted to saying something like yes, we were awful, and we're really very sorry. But compared with that lot, we're not all that bad really.

Mr Diamond would have issued a mea culpa and promised to get tough with the bad boys. He would have appeared before the Treasury Select Committee and the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards and he would have said how sorry and shocked he was personally. He might even have given up a bonus or two. Then he would have toughed it out.

As it is, he's traded little England for New England and is licking his wounds thanks to what they're calling first-mover disadvantage.

Going first certainly hurt Mr Diamond, but Barclays as an institution? Not so much. What will emerge over the next five years or so is a more sober and conservative institution than anything Mr Diamond would have run. Shareholders will probably have to accept lower returns as the bank calls time on some of its activities and stops taking risks with the regulators. But while lower, the returns will be more sustainable, and long-term shareholders will have cause to be thankful for that. Ultimately, Barclays will benefit from the mangle through which it was forced. So will the British taxpayer, because regardless of the new capital buffers Barclays is being asked to hold, and the "living will" it has had to write, it is still a bank that is too big to fail.