UBS on Wednesday became the first big global bank in more than two decades to have a subsidiary plead guilty to fraud.
UBS accepted a $1.5 billion fine for its role in manipulating interest rates.
UBS, the Swiss bank, scrambled until the last minute to avoid that fate. A week ago, in a bid for leniency over interest-rate manipulation, the bank's chairman traveled to Washington to plead his case to the Justice Department, according to people briefed on the matter. Knowing the long odds, the chairman, Axel Weber, asked the criminal division for a lighter punishment.
But the government did not budge. With support from Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., the agency's criminal division decided the bank's actions were simply too egregious, people briefed on the matter said.
On Wednesday, UBS announced it would plead guilty to one count of felony wire fraud as part of a broader settlement. With federal prosecutors, British, Swiss and American regulators secured about $1.5 billion in fines, more than triple the only other rate-rigging case, against Barclays. The Justice Department also filed criminal charges against two former UBS traders.
The guilty plea and the individual charges provide the Justice Department with a long-awaited case to prove it is taking a hard line against financial wrongdoing.
Since the financial crisis, the government has faced criticism that it has not brought significant criminal actions. The money-laundering case against HSBC, which averted indictment when it agreed instead last week to pay $1.9 billion, raised more concerns that the world's largest and most interconnected banks were too big to indict.
With UBS, prosecutors wanted to send a warning.
The Justice Department's decision stops short of imperiling the broader financial system because it shields UBS's parent company from losing its charter, among other major repercussions. But by securing a guilty plea against a subsidiary, the department has shown that it is willing to punish severely one of the world's most powerful banks. It was the first guilty plea from a major financial institution since Drexel Burnham Lambert admitted to six counts of fraud in 1989.
"We are holding those who did wrong accountable," Lanny A. Breuer, the head of the Justice Department's criminal division, said at a news conference on Wednesday. "We cannot, and we will not, tolerate misconduct on Wall Street."
The rate-rigging inquiry, which has ensnared more than a dozen big banks, is focused on major benchmarks like the London interbank offered rate, or Libor. Such rates are central to determining the borrowing rates for trillions of dollars of financial products like corporate loans, mortgages and credit cards.
The fallout from the UBS case is expected to increase pressure on some of the world's largest financial institutions and spur settlement talks across the banking industry. The Royal Bank of Scotland has said it expects to pay fines before its next earnings statement in February, while American institutions, including JPMorgan Chase, also remain in regulators' cross hairs.
Source: The New York Times Dealbook | BEN PROTESS