By Barry Elias | Thursday, 19 Nov 2015 10:45 PM
“Obfuscate and stonewall.”
That was a June 2011 directive from a Barclays managing director and head of automated electronic foreign exchange (FX) trading. It was the recommended response to inquiries from clients, the sales department, or virtually anyone else regarding bank transactions related to its BATS Last Look functionality, according to the New York State Department of Financial Services (DFS).
The managing director further stressed in the email that one should “avoid mentioning the existence of the whole system.”
Barclays’ “Last Look” functionality enabled traders to cancel the execution of client foreign exchange orders if they were deemed unprofitable to the bank, even if they would be profitable to the client.
Milliseconds became the difference as to whether a trade was executed profitably. Since it could take this amount of time to transmit an order across the globe, the bankers were at a disadvantage relative to the high frequency traders, who can execute within nanoseconds. Instead of quoting greater buy/sell spreads to accommodate potential price movements, which would disenfranchise the algorithmic traders, Barclays opted to possess the right of first refusal for the trade on behalf of its client.
Clients and others were not told the trade terminations were the result of this business policy decision. Senior employees instructed traders and information technology employees not to inform the sales staff of Last Look and the underlying policy. Instead, the information conveyed was vague, misleading, or inaccurate – and sometimes they were not given any explanation. Blaming the malfunction on technical latency issues was a recommended strategy from management.
This case was unleashed during the forex rigging probe, for which Barclays agreed to pay about $2.4 billion to the DFS, the U.S. Justice Department, and other agencies, which included $485 million for its manipulation of forex spot trading. This settlement was part of the more than $5.6 billion agreement by six banks for manipulating the $5.3 trillion daily foreign exchange market. The other five banks include Bank of America, Chase, Citigroup, JPMorgan, Royal Bank of Scotland, and UBS.
Barclays recently agreed to pay $150 million to resolve the “Last Look” allegations of abuse in the foreign exchange market through its electronic trading platform: a very serious charge, since it intentionally sought unfair advantages over clients and counterparties through this venue. The DFS also required the bank to fire its global head of electronic fixed income, currencies and commodities automated flow trading. Barclays has not named the dismissed individual and has admitted to wrongdoing in this case.
This settlement will bring the total litigation provisions for Barclays Bank to about $13 billion since the beginning of the financial crisis. Litigation costs for all financial institutions since 2008 have reached nearly $219 billion, most of it borne by U.S. banks, led by Bank of America with about $70 billion, according to Moody’s, a rating agency. They expect more to come, especially from Deutsche Bank’s exposure to foreign exchange litigation and the Royal Bank of Scotland’s exposure to U.S. mortgage litigation.
Barclays is still not off the hook: It is being investigated for other potential misconduct, including possible manipulation of precious metals markets and payments to Qatari investors in its 2008 rights issue.
Even after the crisis, Barclays continued down the road not to be traveled.
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