Zurich - Swiss bank UBS admitted fraud and accepted a $1.5bn fine on Wednesday for its role in manipulating global benchmark interest rates.
Dozens of UBS staff rigged the Libor rate, which is used to price trillions of dollars worth of loans, in collusion with brokers and traders at other banks, according to an investigation by authorities in multiple countries.
The controversy is expected to ensnare other big lenders and spark criminal and civil lawsuits against individuals involved. The penalty UBS agreed with US, UK and Swiss authorities far exceeds the $450m levied on Britain's Barclays in June, also for rigging Libor, and the second largest ever imposed on a bank.
"This is an endemic banking industry problem and shows how far the industry has fallen, failing itself and its customers," said Neil Dwane, chief investment officer for Allianz Global Investors.
"For the future it shows that without strong regulation and strong and new management throughout most of the biggest banks, there can be no reasonable expectation that they will improve their behavior substantially - at least UBS now has strong new management."
Shares in the Swiss lender rose 1.6% to hit a 17-month high of ?15.5 ($16.97) in early trade as investors judged the worst was over.
"You can see from the stock movement that the fine is already baked in," said Markus Jordi, principal at Zurich-based investment manager Cosmos Capital.
"The bank has already kicked out some traders, apologized, said it will shut down parts of the investment bank and overhauled management."
The UBS fine comes a week after Britain's HSBC agreed to pay a record $1.92bn to settle a probe in the US into laundering money for drug cartels.
UBS's unit in Japan pleaded guilty to one count of fraud relating to manipulation of benchmark rates, including the yen Libor.
The Libor benchmarks are used for trillions of dollars worth of loans around the world, ranging from home loans to credit cards to complex derivatives.
Tiny shifts in the rate, compiled from daily polls of bankers, could benefit banks by millions of dollars. But every dollar a bank benefited meant an equal loss by a bank, hedge fund or other investor on the other side of the trade - raising the threat of a raft of civil lawsuits.
The Libor settlement caps a torrid 18 months for UBS during which it lost $2.3bn in a rogue trading scandal, underwent a management upheaval and made thousands of job cuts.
"We deeply regret this inappropriate and unethical behavior. No amount of profit is more important than the reputation of this firm," UBS Chief Executive Sergio Ermotti said in a statement.
The reputational impact of the controversy may only emerge next year.
"The only thing shareholders can do is keep a very close eye on the money flows on the wealth management side," said Neil Wilkinson, portfolio manager at Royal London Asset Management.
"We may not see until the first quarter of next year whether they have lost any clients as a result of this."
Ermotti said around 40 people had left UBS or had been asked to leave as a result of the investigation.
The bank will pay $1.2bn to the US Department of Justice (DoJ) and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), £160m to the UK's Financial Services Authority (FSA) and ?59m from its estimated profit to Swiss regulator Finma.
The UK penalty is the largest in the history of the FSA and more than double the £59m paid by Barclays.
UBS said the fines would widen its fourth quarter net loss but it would not need to raise new capital.
Be a hero
Britain's FSA said attempts to manipulate Libor and Euribor, its European equivalent, were so widespread that every submission UBS made over a six-year period from 2005 to 2010 was suspect.
At least 45 people at UBS were involved in the rigging, which was discussed in internal chat forums and group emails but never detected by compliance staff, despite five audits.
The FSA said the manipulation was considered to be "normal business practice" by a wide pool of people within UBS.
In addition to traders trying to move the Libor rate up or down to make money for themselves, senior managers at the Swiss bank directed dealers to keep Libor submissions low during the financial crisis to make the bank look stronger.
The extent of the wrongdoing was highlighted in a series of emails released by the FSA which showed how traders and brokers conspired to rig the rate and referred to each other in congratulatory terms such as "superman" and "be a hero today".
In one email, a trader wrote :"I need you to keep it as low as possible ... if you do that .... I'll pay you, you know, $50 000, $100 000 ... whatever you want ... I'm a man of my word".
It is the first time that brokers have been accused of taking payments to aid manipulation. ICAP, the world's largest inter-dealer broker, and rival RP Martin have suspended employees in connection with the probe.
In a memo to staff on Wednesday, Ermotti said it was too early to determine whether or how clients were affected, pending further regulatory probing of the rate fixing.
Last week, British police arrested three men, including former UBS and Citigroup trader Thomas Hayes, in connection with the Libor probe, the first such arrests. The two others were Terry Farr and James Gilmour, who both worked at interdealer broker RP Martin.
Until the rate-rigging scandal broke, Libor had been ignored by regulators and left to the banks to police. From next year, Britain's FSA will have oversight of it as part of a major overhaul.
The steep fine for UBS is despite the bank, since 2011, cooperating with law-enforcement agencies in their probes. The bank said it received conditional immunity from some regulators.
A similar admission by Barclays in June touched off a political firestorm that forced its chairman and chief executive to quit.
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