Swiss bank UBS was hit with a $1.5-billion fine on Wednesday, admitting to fraud, paying bribes to brokers and "pervasive" manipulation of global benchmark interest rates by dozens of staff in a deal with international authorities.
The penalty agreed with U.S., U.K. and Swiss regulators is more than three times the $450-million fine levied on Britain's Barclays in June, also for rigging the Libor benchmark rate used to price financial contracts around the globe.
It is the second-largest fine paid by a bank and comes a week after Britain's HSBC agreed to pay the biggest ever penalty – $1.92-billion – to settle a probe in the United States into laundering money for drug cartels.
The revelations are another blow to UBS, which has had a tough 18 months after suffering a $2.3-billion loss in a rogue trading scandal, management upheaval and thousands of job cuts.
"We deeply regret this inappropriate and unethical behaviour. No amount of profit is more important than the reputation of this firm, and we are committed to doing business with integrity," UBS chief executive Sergio Ermotti said in a statement disclosing the extent of the wrongdoing, which took place over six years from 2005 to 2010.
UBS said it will pay $1.2-billion to the U.S. Department of Justice and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, £160-million ($260-million) to the U.K.'s Financial Services Authority and 59 million Swiss francs ($65-million) from its estimated profit to Swiss regulator Finma.
"The core thing is it compares very poorly with Barclays' fine as it's three times the scale. It suggests there's more egregious behaviour," said Chris Wheeler, analyst at Mediobanca in London
The bank said the fines would widen its fourth quarter net loss but said it would not need to raise new capital as a result and traders said the fines were largely priced into the bank's shares, which were expected to open slightly higher in Zurich.
Britain's financial regulator said at least 45 people were involved in the rigging across three continents, which took place across a range of Libor currencies. It i n volved senior managers at UBS directing traders to keep Libor submissions low in order to give the impression that the bank was able to borrow more cheaply than it would actually have been able to do so.
The British FSA said that after August 2007, when the U.S. sub-prime crisis raised doubts about the financial health of banks, UBS told its staff to "protect our franchise in these sensitive markets".
The extent of the wrongdoing was highlighted in documents released by the FSA which showed that in January 2007, a trader asked a manager who supervised the submitter for Yen Libor and asked him to "...try to keep 6m and 3m libors up".
The manager responded: "standing order, sir".
The FSA said "the manipulation was conducted openly and was considered to be a normal and acceptable business practice by a large pool of individuals".
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.
In a memo to staff on Wednesday, Mr. Ermotti said it was too early to determine whether or how clients were affected, pending further regulatory probing of the rate fixing.
The steep fine for UBS is despite the bank, since 2011, co-operating 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. Mr. Ermotti said around 40 people had left UBS or been asked to leave the bank as a result of the investigation.