Analysis: Funds may have won and lost in Libor scandal

BOSTON Tue Jul 17, 2012 2:39pm EDT

Joseph Dear, Chief Investment Officer of California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS) speaks at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California April 30, 2012. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

Joseph Dear, Chief Investment Officer of California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS) speaks at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California April 30, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Fred Prouser

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BOSTON (Reuters) - The investment chief of Calpers, the largest U.S. public pension fund, threatened a lawsuit if the fund was harmed by banks' manipulations of the London InterBank Offered Rate, or Libor.

But he left himself some wiggle room.

"Sometimes we were advantaged and sometimes disadvantaged," Joe Dear, who oversees Calpers $233 billion in assets, said on Monday. The fund is still reviewing the impact, he added. "We'll make a judgment as to whether to seek damages."

To legal observers, Dear's comments sum up the challenge for large investment funds weighing litigation over the growing scandal around Libor, which serves as a benchmark for all manner of loans, bonds and derivatives. Leading asset managers including State Street Corp and BlackRock have also said they are reviewing the Libor situation.

All could have been exposed to Libor manipulations if they collected interest at Libor-linked rates on floating rate bonds or other securities. They also might have paid interest at Libor-linked rates on derivatives contracts or other forms of borrowing or hedging,

But the mix would vary widely and some firms might have protected themselves with hedging strategies, said Thomas Lee Hazen, a University of North Carolina law professor.

"There are so many variables on the types of claims that people and funds could make," Hazen said. "If they hedged themselves, there might not be any provable loss."

Justin Marlowe, a University of Washington finance professor, said some companies might find themselves balancing both gains and losses. "For a well-hedged operation, as most of them are, it's fair to say the Libor scandal will create winning and losing positions on both sides of their ledgers," he said.

Barclays Plc is the only bank so far to settle with U.S. and UK regulators over allegations that it manipulated Libor. The British bank agreed last month to pay $453 million over rate quotes it submitted from 2005 to 2009. In some cases, the bank sought to lower the reported Libor rate while, at other times, the bank tried to push the rate higher.

Other big banks remain under investigation.

SIMPLER FOR BANKS

Similar scandals have led to massive payouts like the hundreds of millions of dollars paid to mutual fund shareholders after trading investigations a decade ago. But the Libor mess is more complicated. Many organizations like pension funds and asset managers that may have been hurt could also have been winners through other vehicles they sold, managed or purchased.

To be sure, the calculation is more straightforward for institutions like smaller banks, which offer fewer products and are more sensitive to interest-rate changes.

Community Bank & Trust of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, with 11 branches and $554 million in assets, has already filed a lawsuit seeking class-action status so other small banks can join in. U.S. community banks may have lost more than $1 billion over four years on loans to small business at artificially low rates, the bank's lawyers estimated.

Individual investors likely face a more complicated situation. They might have been harmed from low Libor rates in the form of lower returns on bond fund investments, but they also could have benefited from lower interest rates on mortgages, credit cards or student loans.

Investment funds tend to be even more diversified.

For example, Calpers' most recent investment portfolio disclosure, dated June 30, 2011, shows the organization held a number of interest rate swaps and swaptions linked to Libor as well as credit default swaps and mortgage-backed securities that may be linked to Libor. On such positions, the fund could be either paying or receiving rates linked to Libor.

The same filing shows the fund also invested in a number of "mezzanine debt" funds, pools that lend money mainly on takeover deals. Lower Libor rates could reduce what these funds could charge for their financing -- and thus the returns to Calpers.

Calpers declined to discuss its holdings beyond the comments by made by Dear, spokeswoman Amy Norris said. Dear's comments came on a call with reporters to review the fund's 1 percent gain posted for its fiscal year ended June 30.

Any large investment organization will have to make a similar review, said James Cox, a professor of corporate and securities law at Duke University.

Each could wind up with a different exposure to the index, complicating their ability to form a broad group to bring class-action lawsuits, a typical way that securities problems are resolved, he said.

"Getting private relief in these matters is going to be very challenging," Cox said. It may be better for government officials to bring actions and use recovered money for general purposes like deficit reduction rather than specific compensation.

"It's going to be so hard to identify everybody who was injured," Cox said.

OTHER REVIEWS

State Street, a Boston-based money manager that oversees $22.4 trillion in custodied and administered assets, said on Tuesday it is reviewing whether it was harmed.

"We're looking internally where we do Libor," State Street Chairman and Chief Executive Jay Hooley told Reuters said in a telephone interview. "It's hard to envision how it will unfold and if it will have any effect on us."

BlackRock Inc, the world's largest money manager with almost $4 trillion of assets, said it will study how the Libor probes play out.

"We are closely following the investigations as well as related litigation to assess the full implications and possible impact these events may have had on our clients and the cash markets," the New York-based firm said in a statement. "The implications of the various investigations and litigation are complex and it will be some time before greater clarity emerges."

(Additional reporting by Jessica Toonkel in New York and Tim McLaughlin in Boston; Editing by Aaron Pressman and Steve Orlofsky)

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