LONDON The Royal Bank of Scotland on Wednesday struck a combined $612 million settlement with U.S. and British authorities over accusations that it manipulated interest rates, the latest case to emerge from a broad international investigation.
In an embarrassing blow to the bank, its Japanese subsidiary also pleaded guilty to criminal wrongdoing in its settlement with the Justice Department. The RBS subsidiary, a hub of rate-rigging activity, agreed to a single count of felony wire fraud to resolve the case.
The settlement reflects the Justice Department's renewed vigor for punishing banks ensnared in the rate manipulation case. In December, a Japanese subsidiary of UBS pleaded guilty to felony wire fraud as part of a larger settlement, representing the first unit of a big bank to agree to criminal charges in more than a decade.
As authorities built the RBS case, they seized on a series of incriminating yet colorful emails that highlighted an effort to influence the rate-setting process, a plot that spanned multiple currencies and countries from 2006 to 2010. One senior trader expressed disbelief at reaping lucrative profits from the scheme, saying "it's just amazing" how rate "fixing can make you that much money," according to the government's complaint. Another trader, after pressuring a colleague to submit a certain rate, offered a reward of sorts: "I would come over there and make love to you."
In a statement on Wednesday, the U.S. regulator leading the case slammed the bank for manipulating benchmarks like the London Interbank Offered Rate, or Libor. The regulator, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, noted that RBS employees "aided and abetted" UBS and other firms in the rate-rigging scheme and continued to run afoul of the law, though more covertly, even after learning of a federal investigation.
"The public is deprived of an honest benchmark interest rate when a group of traders sits around a desk for years falsely spinning their bank's Libor submissions, trying to manufacture winning trades. That's what happened at RBS," David Meister, the enforcement director of the commission, said in the statement.
The settlement represents the latest setback for Royal Bank of Scotland, which has struggled to shake the legacy of the 2008 financial crisis. The British firm already has put aside $2.7 billion to compensate customers who were inappropriately sold loan insurance over recent years. On Jan. 31, British regulators also called on the bank and other local rivals to review the sale of interest-rate hedging products after more than 90 percent of a sample were found to have been sold improperly.
The broader rate-rigging case has centered on how much the Royal Bank of Scotland and a dozen other banks, including Citigroup and HSBC, charge each other for loans. Such benchmarks, including Libor, help determine the borrowing costs for trillions of dollars in financial products like corporate loans, mortgages and credit cards.
But the Royal Bank of Scotland, like many of its competitors, corrupted the process.
Government complaints filed over the last year outlined a scheme in which banks reported false rates to lift trading profits and deflect concerns about their health during the crisis.
Authorities filed the first Libor case in June, extracting a $450 million settlement with the British bank Barclays. In December, UBS agreed to a record $1.5 billion settlement with European regulators, the Justice Department and the U.S. regulator that opened the case, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. The Justice Department's criminal division, which secured the guilty plea from the bank's Japanese unit, also filed criminal charges against two former UBS traders.
Some of the world's largest financial institutions remain caught in the cross hairs of the case.
Deutsche Bank has set aside an undisclosed amount to cover potential penalties.
While foreign banks have received the brunt of the scrutiny to date, a U.S. institution could be among the next to settle. Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase are under investigation.
In the $612 million Royal Bank of Scotland case, authorities levied the second-largest fine in the multiyear investigation into rate manipulation.
In the wake of the settlement, Royal Bank of Scotland is shaking up its management team as it moves to repair its bruised image. John Hourican, the firm's investment banking chief, resigned Wednesday and agreed to forgo some of his past and current compensation totaling around $14.1 million. While Hourican was not implicated in the scandal, senior executives said he was taking blame for wrongdoing in his division.
"John is the right senior person to take responsibility for this," the bank's chairman, Philip Hampton, told reporters on Wednesday.
Royal Bank of Scotland, in which the government holds an 82 percent stake after providing a $73 billion bailout in 2008, also plans to claw back bonuses and other long-term compensation totaling $471 million to help pay for the rate-rigging penalty.
The bank will primarily use the figure to pay the fines from U.S. authorities, while penalties from the British regulator will be recycled back to the British government.
In the Libor case, the wrongdoing at RBS occurred on a smaller scale than at other banks. The breach, authorities say, was limited to Libor submitters and traders who sought to bolster their bottom line. By comparison, top executives at Barclays knew the bank was lowballing its Libor rates to assuage concerns about its high borrowing costs.
RBS, which admitted that 21 of its employees altered the firm's Libor submissions for financial gain on hundreds of occasions, either disciplined or fired most of the employees. The rest left before they were implicated. In the UBS case, the trading commission cited more than 2,000 instances of illegal acts involving dozens of employees.
Still, the government complaints against RBS portray a permissive culture that allowed rate-rigging to persist for some four years.