The 5 banks that paid a total of $3.4 billion to settle claims of manipulating the foreign exchange market all had internal controls in place that cost the banks tens of millions of dollars a year to run. They might just as well have been for decoration: all that the traders at the banks needed to do to get round them was to set up private chat rooms, where they could talk freely about how they would move the daily ‘fixings’ around to make the biggest personal profit.
Documents released by the U.K.’s Financial Conduct Authority Wednesday make clear the cynical and systematic nature of the exercise. In the chatrooms, the dealers referred to themselves as “The A-Team”, “The Cartel”, the “Three Musketeers”, openly boasting of how they worked together to juice their bonuses, and always at the expense of clients or of independent dealer-brokers (disparaged by the bulge-bracket elite as “bookies”).
Here (with a little explanation of the arcane market shorthand and the Cockney rhyming slang) are some of the ‘highlights’.
There was no attempt to hide the purpose of the chatrooms…
A: “i’d prefer we join forces.”
B (JP Morgan): “perfick…lets do ths…lets double team em”.
…whether or not the operations went according to plan. When an HSBC trader within one group complained in a chat room about another trader in the group not disclosing a large net order to him in advance of a fix, he wrote: “u are uselees [useless] … how can I make free money with no fcking heads up”.
The rooms were exclusive, and membership was tightly controlled. One trader at HSBC referred to the fact that in larger chat rooms “people choke up, sacred [scared] to give info”
In another instance, a Citigroup trader said: “dont want other numpty’s in mkt to know [about information exchanged within the group], but not only that[…]is he gonna protect us like we protect each other…”
while a JP Morgan trader “questioned whether a prospective new participant would “tell [the] rest of [his] desk stuff.”
Being able to “mangle” the fixings to maximise profits was a source of pride:
In the immediate aftermath of one European Central Bank fixing, UBS was congratulated on the success of its trading by three other members (“hes sat back in his chaoir [sic]…feet on desk…announcing to desk…thats why i got the bonus pool” and “yeah made most peoples year”).
On another occasion, Citigroup’s trading was variously described by other traders in chat rooms as “impressive”, “lovely” and “cnt teach that”.
Citigroup responded: “yeah worked ok”.
When the fix rate was published to the market, one commented “22 the rate” and Citi replied “always was gonna be.”
Contempt for clients was widespread, with one favored practise being to trigger conditional orders known as “stop losses” that end-users normally use to hedge their risk. In the right circumstances, triggering such an order could net a trader big profits if he had already traded against it at a better price.
One trader noted “i had stops for years but they got sick of my butchering”. On a subsequent occasion, the same trader described himself as “just jamming a little stop here.”
If you couldn’t trigger a stop yourself because you were beyond your daily trading limits, you could always ask a friend. An RBS trader asked a trader at another firm in a chat room to attempt to trigger one of his client’s stop loss orders (“HIT IT … I’m out of bullets haha”).
And the focus was unremittingly short-termist, with eyes only on the weekly or monthly performance target, and never a thought for the long-term impact on the bank or its customers.
This is from a partially successful attempt by an HSBC trader to get the ‘Betty’ fixing below 1.6000 (“Betty Grable” in cockney rhyming slang is “Cable”, meaning the pound/dollar trade):
“loved that mate… worked lovely… pity we couldn’t get it below the 00…we need a few more of those for me to get back on track this month.”
And this is from a more successful ‘mangling’:
A: “we were EPIC at the…fix yest”
A: “i dragged [JPMorgan] in , we covered all the bases b/w us”
B: “so couldnt have been that $hit a week!!”