Turning the Page on LIBOR

Following a tortuous journey marred by scandals and regulatory scrutiny, the time has come to cease the publication of the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR). For over five decades, LIBOR has played a pivotal role as a benchmark, influencing interest rates worldwide and impacting various complex financial instruments. However, due to its tainted history and the need for a more robust and transparent benchmark, the decision to retire LIBOR has been made, marking the end of an era in global finance.

LIBOR’s roots can be traced back to the 1960s when there was a demand for a reference rate that accurately represented borrowing costs between banks. LIBOR emerged as a term encompassing a motley of rates in various currencies, providing a standardised measure of borrowing costs for banks worldwide.

The significance of LIBOR stemmed from its widespread usage across a diverse range of financial instruments. It played a crucial role in determining interest rates for mortgages, student loans, corporate bonds, and financial derivatives. With its versatility and adaptability, LIBOR became a ubiquitous benchmark, affecting the pricing and valuation of trillions of dollars’ worth of contracts across the globe.

Ironically, its role as a financial cornerstone also paved its own downfall.

The 2008 financial crisis exposed critical flaws in LIBOR’s functioning and governance. Investigations revealed instances of rate manipulation by certain banks, raising concerns about the benchmark’s integrity. Although regulatory reforms were implemented to prevent future misconduct, LIBOR’s reputation suffered an irreparable blow, leading to calls for a shift to more robust and transparent benchmark rates.

The final strike came in 2012 when Barclays became the first among several banks to be fined for manipulating LIBOR. This manipulation involved banks providing rates that did not accurately reflect actual market conditions, leading to accusations of exploiting the system for personal gain. In the wake of these rigging allegations, the financial industry faced the brunt of substantial penalties amounting to nearly $10 billion.

Acknowledging the need for a more reliable and transparent benchmark, the financial industry turned to Risk-Free Rates (RFRs) linked to overnight lending markets, as recommended by the Financial Stability Board (FSB). This prompted the development of alternatives worldwide, such as the Sterling Overnight Index Average (SONIA) in the UK and the Euro Short-Term Rate (€STR) in the Eurozone.

In the United States, the preferred RFR that emerged was the Secured Overnight Financing Rate (SOFR), which is supported by deep and liquid Treasury repurchase agreements. Unlike LIBOR, which relied on banks’ submissions, SOFR is derived from actual transactions in overnight lending markets, providing a more objective and reliable measure of borrowing costs.

The transition from LIBOR to SOFR began in earnest in 2014 with the establishment of the Alternative Reference Rates Committee (ARRC), comprising industry representatives and regulators. The goal was to restore trust in financial markets and ensure the accuracy of interest rate calculations. In 2017, the ARRC decided to completely replace LIBOR with SOFR. Since then, a massive effort has been underway to inform banks, fund managers, and other stakeholders about the transition, urging them to shift contracts to the new rate.

However, despite the expectation that new contracts would distance themselves from LIBOR starting in 2022, a significant number of existing contracts are still tied to the benchmark. Many contracts, written before and even after the deadline, continue to reference LIBOR, resulting in a last-minute rush to meet the transition deadline.

According to JPMorgan Chase estimates, as of 2023, trades referencing SOFR (by notional) exceed $14 trillion. Roughly half of the $1.4 trillion loan market has already switched to paying interest based on SOFR, while most of the remaining market has adopted language in loan documents to transition debt still tied to LIBOR to SOFR in the following week.

Nevertheless, according to Covenant Review’s analysis, around 8% – or circa $100 billion – of the loan market has no such fallback language to effectively transition away from LIBOR. These loans primarily belong to riskier borrowers who have encountered challenges in refinancing their debt to reference SOFR.

To mitigate disruptions, British regulators have introduced a temporary rate that mimics LIBOR until September 2024. However, a small number of companies may be compelled to resort to the higher prime rate, which reflects consumer borrowing costs from commercial banks. This transition could have severe consequences for vulnerable borrowers, especially considering the significant increase in interest rates by the Federal Reserve, as cautioned by ratings agency Fitch.

Despite the steep challenges and uncertainties that lie ahead, the progress made in replacing LIBOR reflects the determination of market participants and their commitment to establishing a more resilient and transparent financial system.

Ultimately, as the financial industry bids farewell to LIBOR, it subsequently paves the way for a new epoch. The discontinuation of this once-dominant benchmark symbolises a profound transformation in global financial markets. And while there may be growing pains and impediments along the way, embracing this change allows for the development of a financial landscape better equipped to navigate the challenges of an already uncertain future.

Syed Zain Abbas Rizvi
Syed Zain Abbas Rizvi
The author is a political and economic analyst. He focuses on geopolitical policymaking and international affairs. Syed has written extensively on fintech economy, foreign policy, and economic decision making of the Indo-Pacific and Asian region.