In Philadelphia, ripping off taxpayers doesn’t disqualify financial institutions from winning opportunities to make profits from new city contracts.
The city has hired two of the Wall Street banks that its lawyers allege overpriced bond resales from at least 2008 to 2016 to manage its latest $190 million borrowing.
Barclays Bank Plc will lead and Wells Fargo will assist in pricing and selling the city’s pending floating-rate bonds, Bloomberg LP reported.
In February, the city authorized a lawsuit in New York federal court against Barclays, Wells Fargo, and five other investment banks, seeking actual damages plus triple damages for anti-competitive violations.
The city said the banks formed a “cartel" to keep bond interest rates “artificially high” so investors would find them more attractive, because taxpayers would pay extra. “Rates were artificially inflated for several years,” according to the suit, compared with the lower interest charges paid by other similarly rated borrowers.
The banks also kept “hundreds of millions of dollars” in fees that they weren’t entitled to, the suit asserts. Because the city was paying extra interest and fees, it had less money to pay for “critical projects and services." At the time, the banks declined to comment. Barclays and Wells Fargo declined to comment to Bloomberg on their recent hiring.
Even as that suit and a similar 2013 complaint against some of the same banks are pending in court, city officials say they are confident they can trust Barclays and Wells Fargo not to rip them off again.
The city “decided to use both banks as managers for the upcoming general obligation bond because the selection committee felt that both firms provided thoughtful credit and marketing ideas when responding to the Request for Information associated with the transaction,” said spokesperson Mike Dunn.
In the earlier bond deals, Philadelphia typically paid the banks 0.1 percent of the bonds’ value each year in exchange for the banks’ promise to offer the adjustable-rate bonds for resale to money-market mutual funds and other investors willing to pay a bit less, which would save the city money.
Instead, according to the suit, the banks tended to stuff Philadelphia’s debt into their own investment funds, where they would pay the banks’ clients relatively high interest rates.
And, the banks “conspired not to compete against each other” in finding buyers willing to accept lower interest rates. Instead of competing, the bankers “regularly met face to face” at the Municipal Bond Club of New York and other venues, making it “easy” to rig higher rates at taxpayers’ expense, the suit says.
A whistle-blower from one of the firms sparked investigations by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice, starting in 2015 and “still going on,” according to the suit.
The Quinn Emanuel firm, which is representing the city, was also lead counsel for the city in a lawsuit against several Wall Street banks, including Wells Fargo but not Barclays, in 2013, alleging manipulation of the London interbank offer rate (Libor), a key variable-rate bond pricing benchmark. That suit is pending.
Last June, state attorneys general said they had recovered a total of $420 million ripped off in interest rate scams by Barclays, Deutsche Bank, and Citigroup, including small payments to the Pennsylvania school pension system (PSERS), the University of Pittsburgh, Lehigh Valley Hospital, and the Central Pennsylvania Teamsters.
All told, global banks have paid over $9 billion in fines since 2012 for their roles in manipulating bond interest rates and benchmarks to boost their fees at clients’ expense.
Staff writer Erin Arvedlund contributed to this article.