As regulators ramp up their global investigation into the manipulation of interest rates, the Justice Department has identified potential criminal wrongdoing by big banks and individuals at the center of the scandal.
The department’s criminal division is building cases against several financial institutions and their employees, including traders at Barclays, the British bank, according to government officials close to the case who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing. The authorities expect to file charges against at least one bank later this year, one of the officials said.
The prospect of criminal cases is expected to rattle the banking world and provide a new impetus for financial institutions to settle with the authorities. The Justice Department investigation comes on top of private investor lawsuits and a sweeping regulatory inquiry led by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. Collectively, the civil and criminal actions could cost the banking industry tens of billions of dollars.
The criminal and civil investigations have focused on how banks set the London interbank offered rate, known as Libor. The benchmark, a measure of how much banks charge one another for loans, is used to determine the borrowing costs for trillions of dollars of financial products, including mortgages, credit cards andstudent loans. Cities, states and municipal agencies also are examining whether they suffered losses from the rate manipulation, and some have filed suits.
With civil actions, regulators can impose fines and force banks to overhaul their internal controls. But the Justice Department would wield an even more potent threat by bringing criminal fraud cases against traders and other employees. If found guilty, they could face jail time.
The criminal investigations come at a time when the public is still simmering over the dearth of prosecutions of prominent executives involved in the mortgage crisis. The continued trouble in the financial sector, including the multibillion-dollar trading losses at JPMorgan Chase, have only further fueled the anger of consumers and investors.
But the Libor case presents a potential opportunity for prosecutors. Given the scope of the problems and the number of institutions involved, the rate-rigging investigation could provide a signature moment to hold big banks accountable for their activities during the financial crisis.
“It’s hard to imagine a bigger case than Libor,” said one of the government officials involved in the case.
The Justice Department has jurisdiction over the London bank rate because the benchmark affects markets in the United States. It could not be learned which institutions the criminal division is chasing next.