STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The U.S. Justice Department yesterday announced criminal charges against three former brokers with a London-based brokerage firm. These charges stem from ongoing investigations into illegal manipulation of the so-called LIBOR rate.
Here's NPR's Chris Arnold.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: LIBOR stands for the London InterBank Offered Rate. Yesterday, the three month LIBOR rate was .25 percent. That might sound kind of boring. But that little number has actually been called the biggest number in the world. And that's because trillions of dollars worth of investments change value as the LIBOR rate goes up or down.
As Stephen Colbert puts it...
STEPHEN COLBERT: Then that LIBOR rate is used to set interest rates everywhere on earth. Well, of course not everywhere. Just places that use money.
COLBERT: I believe emperor penguins on the Ross Ice Shelf are not affected.
ARNOLD: So, and that's why it was such a big scandal last year - when U.S. and British regulators charged Barclays bank for trying to manipulate LIBOR. In other words, trying to make money by corrupting the bedrock of the entire financial system.
Since then, more banks and financial firms have been implicated. And now, in this latest development, the Justice Department is bringing criminal charges against three former employees of a brokerage firm named ICAP. And the charges could mean upwards of 30 years in prison.
Peter Djinis is a lawyer who used to work in a Financial Crimes division of the Treasury Department.
PETER DJINIS: To me, it's a good sign the federal government is finally treating economic misdeeds as a law enforcement issue.
ARNOLD: The Justice Department says the three brokers colluded with a trader at the big Swiss bank UBS to manipulate the LIBOR rate to push it up or down in a way that made the trader and UBS a lot of money. In exchange, the brokers allegedly got kickbacks.
In an electronic message the UBS trader said he stood to make $3 million for every 1/100th of a percent that the LIBOR rate rose. And that was just in one day. This allegedly went on for four years. One of the brokers came to be known as Lord Libor.
Djinis says there've been very few criminal prosecutions since the financial crisis. And he'd like to see more of this.
DJINIS: When you have individuals who work at a financial institution that know that they run the risk of being criminally prosecuted, that provides a very powerful disincentive.
ARNOLD: Other former regulators agree. William Black was the litigation director for the Federal Home Loan Bank Board during the Savings and Loan debacle in the '80s. He says back then scores of senior bank executives went to jail. But since the financial crisis five years ago...
WILLIAM BLACK: We haven't seen any criminal prosecutions of the elite bankers who actually caused the financial crisis.
ARNOLD: For its part, the brokerage firm ICAP says the charges involved just a few rotten apples at the company. And it, of course, remains to be seen if the government can win its case.
SOL WISENBERG: The indictment always looks good, right? The complaint always looks good.
ARNOLD: Sol Wisenberg is a former prosecutor and a white collar defense attorney at Barnes and Thornburg in Washington, D.C. He says one thing the defense might argue is that regulators knew what was going on for years and didn't stop it.
WISENBERG: And if that is true, one can always fashion a defense that regulators knew about this and didn't do anything and we therefore, thought we were OK.
ARNOLD: Meanwhile, the Justice Departments investigation into the LIBOR scandal is ongoing. So there might be more criminal charges to come.
Chris Arnold, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.