Barclays chairman quits over rate-fixing scandal
LONDON, July 2 – Barclays Plc sacrificed its chairman Marcus Agius over an interest rate rigging scandal that has dealt “a devastating blow” to the bank’s reputation, apparently seeking to defuse calls for chief executive Bob Diamond to go.
Agius – who said “the buck stops with me” – is the first major scalp from the scandal, which is likely to involve more banks and could also embarrass regulatory authorities.
But Agius’s departure from Britain’s third-largest bank did not take the heat off Diamond (picture), who was running Barclays’ investment banking arm when the interest rate manipulation took place.
“The buck in Barclays stops with Bob Diamond, and it is Bob Diamond who must accept responsibility,” said John Mann, a Labour politician who is part of a panel of lawmakers who will grill Diamond on Wednesday, and Agius on Thursday.
“He (Diamond) must resign. He’s got to go. There is no role for people like him if banking is to be trusted again in this country and if British banking is to restore its tarnished reputation in the world, which of course is of great importance to our economy,” Mann said on Sky News.
Barclays has admitted that some of its traders attempted to manipulate the London Interbank Offered Rate (Libor), which is used worldwide as a benchmark for prices on about US$350 trillion (RM1,107 trillion) of derivatives and other financial products.
Prime Minister David Cameron has called the scandal “extremely serious” and said management had “some big questions to answer”. Authorities also ordered a review into the working of Libor, a key lending rate between banks.
The Barclays affair comes at a time when banks in Britain – already under fire for their role in the financial crisis – are facing a new wave of public outrage.
A technology problem at RBS shut millions of customers out of their accounts last month, and evidence has emerged showing banks mis-sold financial products to small businesses.
FAR AND WIDE
Fined US$453 million by US and British authorities, Barclays is the first bank to settle in an investigation which is looking at more than a dozen other banks, including Citigroup, HSBC, UBS and RBS.
“Barclays has become the poster child for this because they have been the first to be assessed by the regulators,” Euan Stirling of Standard Life Investments, which holds some 2 per cent in Barclays, said on BBC radio.
“I think this is going to spread far and wide through the industry,” Stirling said.
Smaller shareholders were more robust in their demands for Diamond to take responsibility.
“I still think it is going to be hard for Bob Diamond to keep his job. I don’t think he has built up enough shareholder goodwill in the past to be able to ride this one out,” said a top-25 investor in the bank, who asked not to be named.
Barclays shares were up 4 per cent at 1159 GMT, outperforming a 2.2 per cent rise by the European bank index.
The exit of Agius was not seen as a big blow, analysts said, and a 17 per cent crash in the past three trading days looked excessive in light of the hit the bank is likely to suffer.
CONVERSATION WITH THE BOE
Lawmakers this week are likely to quiz Agius and Diamond on what the Bank of England (BoE) and other regulators knew about the rate-rigging at a time that unsecured interbank lending had virtually dried up during the crisis.
The hearings could prove embarrassing for the central bank, after sources said a conversation held in October 2008 cited in documents released by US authorities last week was between Diamond and BoE Deputy Governor Paul Tucker.
Some people at Barclays mistakenly believed they had been granted permission to submit artificially low rates for Libor after the conversation, the documents showed.
“It is nonsense to suggest that the Bank of England was aware of any impropriety in the setting of LIBOR,” a BoE spokesman said. “If we had been aware of attempts to manipulate LIBOR we would have treated them very seriously.”
Barclays has admitted it submitted artificially low estimates of its borrowing costs from late 2007 to May 2009 because it thought rivals were doing the same, and higher submissions would make it appear to be in trouble.
Barclays employees expressed their concern that Libor rates were being set too low to the British Bankers’ Association – the UK banking lobby group that is also responsible for setting Libor – the Financial Services Authority, the BoE and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York between November 2007 and October 2008, a US Department of Justice document said.
However, the employees did not provide “full and accurate information” to the authorities, the document said.
Barclays said it would launch an audit of its business practices, led by Michael Rake, its senior independent director, who will move up to deputy chairman.
Rake is seen as a strong candidate to become Barclays’ next chairman – especially as he was not appointed to lead the search – although he is already chairman of BT Group and easyJet , and may have to give up one or both of those.
The audit will undertake “a root and branch review of all of the past practices that have been revealed as flawed” and assess implications for its practices and culture. Diamond said its recommendations would be implemented in full.
Agius said Barclays had been “well served by an excellent executive team”, first led by John Varley, and now by Diamond.
Cambridge-educated Agius became chairman at the start of 2007 after more than 30 years as an investment banker and then chairman at Lazard. His wife Kate, a successful art dealer, comes from the Rothschild banking dynasty.
Wealth-X, the Singapore-headquartered research house which tracks the wealth of the world’s richest people, estimates that Agius has a net worth of at least US$35 million.
“Last week’s events – evidencing as they do unacceptable standards of behaviour within the bank – have dealt a devastating blow to Barclays reputation,” Agius said.
“I am truly sorry that our customers, clients, employees and shareholders have been let down,” he said.
Agius also relinquished his position as chairman of the BBA, a role that is drawn from the senior ranks from one of the banks. The BBA said its board would meet soon and make an announcement about a successor in due course. – Reuters