By Alex PIGMAN
The EU’s powerful anti-trust sheriff on Thursday accused eight banks of having conspired for several years to distort competition in the eurozone bond market.
According to the European Commission, the banks colluded to distort competition when acquiring and selling eurozone government bonds in periods from 2007 to 2012, at the height of the financial crisis.
The accusation, known as a statement of objections in EU jargon, does not prejudge the outcome of an investigation, but are rarely reversed and the accused can expect fines.
“The commission’s investigation relates to certain traders at eight banks and does not imply that the alleged anti-competitive conduct was a general practice,” the EU said.
The Brussels-based commission refused to name the banks, but a banking source said that US giant Bank of America Merrill Lynch was one of the eight.
The US bank declined to comment.
The case comes a month after Credit Suisse, Credit Agricole and Deutsche Bank came into the EU’s crosshairs for bond trading collusion in a separate case announced in December.
Credit Suisse was also targeted by Brussels over a foreign-exchange cartel last year.
The EU probe follows a similar probe last year in London by British regulators into a suspected cartel among bond-traders at unnamed international banking giants.
The accusations deal a fresh blow to the banking industry which has spent years recovering from a series of crisis-era scandals including manipulation of the Libor lending rate and other key benchmarks.
Much like those scandals, the commission said the collusion in this case took place “mainly — but not exclusively — through online chatrooms”.
The EU, which is not bound by any legal deadline in the investigation, could impose a fine of up to 10 percent of each bank’s annual turnover if its allegations are confirmed.
The Libor and other scandals resulted in massive fines, slashed bonuses and tighter regulation for the banking industry, putting the lid on free-wheeling behaviour that many say caused the crisis.
– Big borrowers –
The cases had resulted in the payment of several hundred million euros in fines for large banks, as well as a number of lawsuits.
Companies involved in EU cartel cases have a chance to defend their case, but the commission very rarely reverses a statement of objections.
Government debt issuance runs very high in the eurozone, with Italy, Greece but also France among of the biggest borrowers on the global debt market. The business is handled — for a fee — by some of the world’s biggest banks.
According to Bloomberg, major investment banks — including Citicorp, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Deutsche Bank — are among the most active participants.
Outstanding government debt in the eurozone was around $9.4 trillion as of the second quarter of 2018, according to the Bank for International Settlements, an institution operated by central banks.