By Jamie McGeever
LONDON, March 5 (Reuters) - The Bank of England revealed on Wednesday that allegations of rigging of world currency markets had been flagged as far back as mid-2006 as it suspended a staff member as part of a probe into what it knew about the alleged manipulation.
The so-called fixings that are at the centre of a global investigation into allegations of manipulation by traders are used to price trillions of dollars worth of investments and deals and relied upon by companies, investors and central banks.
What the British central bank knew about practices in its role monitoring the largely unregulated $5.3 trillion-a-day currency market has become a focus of a probe into alleged collusion between dealers at some of the world’s biggest banks.
Wednesday’s suspension and the revelations about previous warnings of possible manipulation attempts of the “London fix” prompted British lawmaker Andrew Tyrie to say that Bank of England Governor Mark Carney and other officials from the central bank will face questions next week about the BoE’s probe when they make a scheduled appearance before the UK parliament’s influential Treasury Committee.
Tyrie said in a statement that the Bank’s oversight body should have been involved earlier.
Regulators have said the alleged foreign exchange manipulation is as bad as the Libor interest rate rigging, which has resulted in banks shelling out $6 billion in fines and settlements and criminal cases against some individuals.
A BoE internal review had so far found no evidence that its staff colluded in any manipulation or shared confidential client information, the central bank said.
“However, the Bank requires its staff to follow rigorous internal control processes and has today suspended a member of staff, pending investigation by the Bank into compliance with those processes,” it said in a statement.
“The Bank has today re-iterated its guidance to staff regarding management of records and escalation of important information,” it added.
A bank spokesperson declined to comment on the identity of the individual or give further details about the suspension.
The Bank said its oversight body will lead an investigation into whether BoE officials were involved in manipulation of benchmark foreign exchange fixings or were aware of the potential for such manipulation, and whether they were involved in or aware of sharing confidential client information.
Minutes of meetings between chief currency dealers in London and BoE officials - the Foreign Exchange Joint Standing Committee’s chief dealers subgroup (CDSG), which was set up in 2005 to discuss industry affairs - say allegations of possible manipulation of fixings were first raised in July 2006, nearly seven years before concerns became public.
“It was noted that there was evidence of attempts to move the market around popular fixing times by players that had no particular interest in that fix,” the minutes, released by the BoE in response to a Freedom of Information request by Reuters last month, say.
“This was not in the interest of customers if the market was forced away from where it should be when the fixing snapshot was taken. It was noted that ‘fixing business’ generally was becoming increasingly fraught due to this behaviour,” the minutes of the meeting on July 4, 2006, said.
Later BoE minutes showed that the regular CDSG meetings were discontinued in February 2013, shortly before media reports of the allegations first surfaced.
At the centre of the probe involving Britain’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and the U.S. Department of Justice are allegations that senior traders shared market-sensitive information relevant for the London fix, which is set at 4 p.m. London time, using actual trades. London is the hub of the global currency market, accounting for some 40 percent of the trillions of dollars traded on an average day.
The key benchmark, known as the WM/Reuters fix, relates to several exchange rates, including the euro, sterling, Swiss franc and yen. They are compiled using data from Thomson Reuters and other providers, and are calculated by WM, a unit of State Street Corp.
“WM Company, a unit of State Street Corp, is the administrator for the WM/Reuters Service. Through an agreement, Thomson Reuters is a primary source of rates to WM from which WM applies its methodology and calculates the benchmark. Thomson Reuters is one of the various distributors of the rate,” Thomson Reuters said in a statement on Wednesday.
Thomson Reuters is the parent company of Reuters News, which is not involved in the fixing process.
The CDSG, which the minutes show held several of its meetings in smart restaurants around London’s financial district, last convened in February 2013, even though a meeting had been scheduled for the following July. Media reports of allegations of FX market manipulation first surfaced in June.
A Bank spokesperson was unable to say why the meetings with chief dealers had stopped or at whose behest.
The Bank’s internal review began in October last year and has to date examined around 15,000 emails, 21,000 chat-room records and more than 40 hours of telephone call recordings.
Britain’s FCA and the Justice Department investigations also formally opened in October. They are among regulators around the world looking into possible wrongdoing in the FX market.
More than 20 traders have been placed on leave, suspended or fired by banks in recent months, including the chief dealers at currency trading giants Citi, JP Morgan Chase, Barclays and UBS.
“Alarm bells should be ringing when a central bank suspends staff in connection with market rigging,” said Simon Morris of law firm CMS. “This is serious, because the whole basis of regulation is based on trust and integrity.”
Martin Wheatley, chief executive of Britain’s FCA, said the allegations are “every bit as bad” as those in the Libor scandal.