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Despite being found guilty of and fined for manipulations of every other market in the world (from FX to rates to energy), investors small and large continue to play the markets on the basis that they are fair and balanced. Aside from high-profile insider trades; day after day, the oddly high correlations, the obvious spikes, blips, and front-running are ignored… until now. In this brief documentary,CBC asks the critical question “are the world’s stock markets rigged?” Amanda Lang concludes “there’s a sense among the general public that nobody seems to be maintaining the integrity of the system.” as she highlights case after case “as though everything is rigged!” Conspiracy theory evolves once again into conspiracy fact as the system that’s supposed to benefit many, but actually enriches a few.
“Historically, the system works because people have confidence in the rules and believe they are treated the same as anybody else.
But it’s getting harder and harder to ignore the stories of powerful people cheating the system for their own gain. As the bad apples add up, it gets harder and harder to ignore a troubling realization — “everything is rigged.””
Courtesy of the revelations over the past year, one thing has been settled: the statement “Wall Street Manipulated Everything” is no longer in the conspiracy theorist’s arsenal: it is now part of the factually accepted vernacular. And to summarize just how, who and where this manipulation takes places is the following series of charts from Bloomberg demonstrating Wall Street at its best – breaking the rules and making a killing.
Regulators are looking into whether currency traders have conspired through instant messages to manipulate foreign exchange rates. The currency rates are used to calculate the value of stock and bond indexes.
Banks have been accused of manipulating energy markets in California and other states.
Since early 2008 banks have been caught up in investigations and litigation over alleged manipulations of Libor.
Banks have been accused of improper foreclosure practices, selling bonds backed by shoddy mortgages, and misleading investors about the quality of the loans.
I didn’t study business before I became a business reporter. I studied architecture, and of all the knowledge I acquired the most important was that I was not destined to be an architect.
Journalism was a lucky accident, born of necessity, and business journalism even more so. The underdog paper that would hire me in 1994 was the Financial Post and so I dove into the world of business.
From the beginning, I admired the untidy elegance of the way an economy functions. I believed in and even came to revere the importance of markets — that is, well-oiled machines whose only real job is to set prices.
Markets work to ensure that resources are allocated efficiently. Accurate prices are at the heart of that efficiency and the result isn’t some remote or arcane thing, it is prosperity and happiness for humans. Well-priced markets are essential. Fairness is essential.
‘Whenever it is possible to fix a price for personal gain, someone is doing it’
Over time, I watched a number of changes take place aimed at levelling the playing field. From the long ago days when stocks were traded by a group of men who met under a buttonwood tree in lower Manhattan, to a game that is pitched to grandmothers — “Manage your own money! You too can be wealthy!” — the rules have changed.
In the late 1990s, as technology stocks bubbled to a temperature that would burn some investors for a decade or more, rules about fairness of pricing were implemented. The point of the most important such rule, known as Regulation Fair Disclosure, was that insiders — or the “smart money,” as professional money managers are sometimes called — shouldn’t have an unfair edge in the form of access to information. Prices are only perfect if all information is priced in and the more participants there are to that process, the more pristine the outcome. Or so the thinking went.
How naive that view now seems. How innocent. Because for the last two years, as the globe staggered back to its feet in recovery from the body blow delivered by fast moving investment banks that lost sight of basic risk management policies, the number of examples of ways in which the markets are rigged are too numerous to count.
Each one seems more shocking than the last.
Insider trading, as old as the hills, is now a billion-dollar enterprise at certain investment funds and part of the culture of many. Investment banks may be gaming the price of some commodities, with a subsequent cost that reaches every corner of the planet. Currency traders collude with each other to make tiny profit on their trades, writ large over billions of executions.
The system is rigged
Then the most shocking of all, a key international interest rate used to set trillions of dollars of prices, is being manipulated. LIBOR, the London Interbank Offered Rate, is like the foundation of a house that holds billions of people. If that foundation is askew — as we now know it was — what does that say about huge parts of the markets and those prices we thought were based on real information? A mirage.
For this business journalist, the shock of that was intense. There will always be fraudsters — smooth-talking snake oil pitchmen — and regulators are on the lookout for them. But the evidence is mounting that whenever it is possible to fix a price for personal gain, someone is doing it.
That’s not just a disappointment; it undermines the entire system. Tiny price distortions get magnified across the global economy. We all pay, even if we don’t really know it. Most important, if market participants — from a sophisticated bond trader trying to price a bond based off a benchmark rate, to your grandmother putting her life savings into a stock — don’t believe in its fundamental soundness, don’t believe that prices are as fair as prices can be, the entire thing falls apart.
It happened in Holland in the 17th century, when tulip bulbs became an irrational bubble. It has happened often in fact, in tiny pockets, from land in Florida to London Bridge. The outcome of those incidents is distrust and an unwillingness to invest there again.
So what is the outcome if those kinds of mispricings are everywhere? That’s a thought too stark to contemplate. Better that investors — the “dumb money” that is you and me — sit up and take notice before it’s too late. If indeed it isn’t already.