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UBS to Plead Guilty on Libor, Settle Currency Probe With Fed

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UBS Group AG will pay $545 million to settle U.S. investigations into its role in manipulating currency and interest rates, removing two of the bank’s biggest legal hurdles.

The lender’s main unit, UBS AG, will plead guilty to fraud for manipulating benchmark interest rates and pay $203 million in fines after the Swiss bank violated an agreement that had allowed it to avoid prosecution, UBS said in a statement Wednesday.

In the currency case, UBS said it will pay $342 million to the Federal Reserve, which regulates foreign banks, and undertake remedial measures. It won immunity for cooperating in a parallel antitrust probe, sparing the bank possible fines and felony charges on that score.

Four other global banks are expected to announce U.S. settlements Wednesday over manipulating foreign exchange rates, people with knowledge of the discussions have said. Citigroup Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co., Barclays Plc and Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc will probably enter pleas related to antitrust violations, the people said.

UBS’s settlement was lower than some analysts expected. JPMorgan Chase & Co’s Kian Abouhossein had estimated the fine at 3 billion francs, he said Wednesday in a note to clients. Shares were up 3.1 percent at 20.44 francs at 10:30 a.m. in Zurich.

UBS resolved the foreign exchange case under terms that are “clearly better than expected” and the guilty plea in the interest rate probe probably won’t have a “very negative impact,” said Andreas Venditti, a Zurich-based analyst at Vontobel Holding AG.’

The currency investigation led the U.S. Justice Department to rip up a 2012 non-prosecution agreement with UBS that was designed to settle an earlier probe into the rigging of the London interbank offered rate, or Libor. The deal was conditional on the bank not committing further U.S. crimes during the next two years. The foreign exchange probe began less than a year later.

The new Libor settlement marks the first time the Justice Department has revoked a non-prosecution agreement in the banking industry and signals its determination to crack down on repeat offenders. UBS said it will plead guilty to one count of wire fraud and accept a three-year probation.

“It’s disappointing they’ve had to plead guilty on a separate charge on Libor,” said Christopher Wheeler, an London- based analyst at Atlantic Equities LLP in an interview with Bloomberg Television on Wednesday. “Sadly the reputational damage has been done.”

’Unacceptable Conduct’

UBS’s guilty plea raises the prospect of the bank having to seek permission from U.S. regulators to keep operating in certain lines of business, including managing mutual funds and pensions for Americans. UBS didn’t comment on waivers in its statement Wednesday.

UBS said it has no need to set aside further provisions for the settlements and that they would have no financial impact on second-quarter earnings. Rising legal costs have been a burden on earnings since the financial crisis and a stumbling block for Chief Executive Officer Sergio Ermotti in boosting profitability. “The conduct of a small number of employees was unacceptable and we have taken appropriate disciplinary actions,” Ermotti and UBS Chairman Axel Weber said in the joint statement. “We made significant investments to strengthen our control framework and compliance programs.”

The Libor and currency probes were two of the biggest legal threats UBS faced as it scales back activities in investment banking, the business that led prosecutors to its doorstep. The bank continues to cooperate with other authorities in the industry-wide matter, including investigations of individuals.

Wednesday’s settlements bring UBS’s bill for attempting to manipulate markets to more than $2.8 billion. That includes $1.7 billion in the Libor case and the $800 million UBS paid last year to U.S., U.K. and Swiss regulators over its role in rigging foreign exchange rates.

The Justice Department has come under criticism in recent years for the deferred- and non-prosecution agreements it has reached with banks, with lawmakers and other critics saying the deals weren’t an adequate deterrent. The government counters that the agreements lead to oversight and cooperation that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.

— Check out Nobody’s Worried About ‘Too Big to Jail’ Anymore on ThinkAdvisor.