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Dutch Rabobank fined $1 billion over Libor scandal

RABO bank CEO Piet Moerland speaks during the presentation of the annual results of 2011 at the bank's headquarters in Utrecht March 1, 2012
RABO bank CEO Piet Moerland speaks during the presentation of the annual results of 2011 at the bank's headquarters in Utrecht March 1, 2012

By Sara Webb

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - U.S. and European regulators have fined Dutch lender Rabobank $1 billion for rigging benchmark interest rates, making it the fifth bank punished in a scandal that has helped to shred faith in the industry.

Rabobank said on Tuesday it would pay 774 million euros to U.S., British and Dutch regulators after 30 staff were involved in "inappropriate conduct" in scam to manipulate the London Interbank Offered Rate (Libor) and its Euribor cousin - benchmarks for more than $300 trillion of financial assets

Chief Executive Piet Moerland resigned, saying he was shocked by language revealed in emails exchanged by staff involved over six years to 2011. He acknowledged it would arouse indignation, both within an institution founded as a cooperative and among the public at large.

"Such behavior is entirely contrary to our core values, of which integrity is the most important," he said.

Japan's banking regulator also ordered the Tokyo branch of Rabobank to bolster its legal compliance procedures after finding that a trader had tried to manipulate the setting of yen Libor. Rabobank said it was closing its branch in Japan, cutting 30 jobs and leaving just a representative office.

The scandal surrounding the interbank rates that oil the wheels of global finance has prompted authorities to fine five institutions $3.7 billion to date. They have also charged seven men with criminal offences amid a sprawling, global inquiry that has laid bare the failings of regulators and bank bosses.

Around five years after the world's financial system buckled and forced taxpayers to fund huge rescues of crippled banks, public and political outcry has been stoked in part by industry gripes about tough new rules to rein in excessive risk-taking and fat bonuses blamed for feeding greed.

SHAMELESS FRAUD

Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem said Rabobank's "shameless fraud by financiers" was far removed from the cooperative ideals of the lender's founders.

But the size of the fine imposed on Rabobank - a mutual lender that finances Dutch cheese and tulip producers and which has abolished executive board member bonuses - sends a stark message to institutions such as Germany's Deutsche Bank , which have yet to reach regulatory settlements.

It is the second largest penalty to date and bigger than initially expected at a time when banks are also setting aside billions of euros to cover civil litigation costs from clients who allege they were short-changed by the scam.

Deutsche, Germany's largest bank, set aside an extra 1.2 billion euros on Tuesday to deal with potential litigation costs, while UBS in Switzerland was told to hold extra capital to cover looming liabilities.

Sipko Schat, a Rabobank board member, said the bank had only learned the fine would be about $1 billion six or seven weeks ago - indicating that regulators are taking an increasingly tough stance. Back in February, a fine of the order of $450-$600 million had been expected.

Britain's Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) said the Rabobank fine was particularly high because it had failed to act after an employee responsible for submitting the bank's yen-denominated Libor rates told an internal audit group in 2009 his submissions were based on instructions from traders.

In March 2011, Rabobank had told the British regulator its Libor-related systems and controls were "fit for purpose".

The FCA said it had found over 500 instances of attempted Libor manipulation, directly or indirectly, involving at least nine managers and 19 other individuals based across the world.

"Rabobank's misconduct is among the most serious we have identified on Libor," said Tracey McDermott, head of financial crime at the FCA. "This is unacceptable."

CROOKS IN THE MARKET

The U.S. Justice Department agreed to defer criminal charges against Rabobank for two years, and drop charges if the lender complied with demands to cooperate in investigations.

Documents released by regulators showed Rabobank staff taking a dismissive attitude to regulations.

When one yen derivatives trader in 2007 asked a colleague responsible for answering the daily survey used to set Libor to give a false rate, the submitter responded by email: "Don't worry mate - there's bigger crooks in the market than us guys!"

In 2006, a Rabobank dollar derivatives trader repeatedly asked the head of the bank's money market desk in London, who supervised the rate submitters, for rates that favored his positions. After one request in December, the desk head wrote back: "I am fast turning into your LIBOR bitch!!!!"

Rabobank, which said it was committed to "learning the lessons of the past", has tightened systems and controls. Of the 30 staff involved, 10 had already left the bank, five were fired with a sixth case pending, and 14 have been disciplined, board member Schat told Reuters. The bank stressed it was financially strong enough to withstand the fine.

Although it said no executive board members had been aware of or involved in the misconduct, the board had voluntarily forfeited remuneration worth a total of 2 million euros.

UBS has faced the largest Libor penalty to date. It was ordered to pay $1.5 billion last December and two of its former traders have been charged with taking part in an alleged multi-year scheme to rig rates.

The Libor scandal has prompted regulators to scrutinize benchmarks across financial markets, from crude oil and swaps and gold to the $5.3 trillion-a-day foreign exchange market in an effort to stamp out misconduct.

"I wish I could say that this won't happen again, but I can't," noted Gary Gensler, the chairman of the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). "Libor and Euribor are not sufficiently anchored in observable transactions.

"Thus, they are basically more akin to fiction than fact."

(Additional reporting by Clare Hutchison and Steve Slater in London, Aruna Viswanatha and Douwe Miedema in Washington, and Thomas Escritt and Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam; Writing by Kirstin Ridley and Sara Webb; Editing by David Stamp and Alastair Macdonald)

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