A group of institutional investors recently filed a class action complaint against some of the world’s largest banks alleging a conspiracy fix prices and monopolize the market for Credit Default Swaps (“CDS”) in violation of the Sherman Act § 1. Defendants include Bank of America, Barclays, Citibank, and Goldman Sachs. The complaint also names the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (“ISDA”), a financial trade association, which the complaint alleges is controlled by the defendant banks. The plaintiffs are claiming potentially billions of dollars in damages.
A credit default swap is a method of transferring the risk of default for a financial instrument. The purchaser pays a fixed payment to the seller in exchange for the promise to pay off the underlying debt in the event of a default. The complaint alleges that because of the CDS market structure is unregulated and over the counter, every transaction must be with one of the defendant banks.
The complaint characterizes the CDS market as “starkly divided” between the defendant banks “who control and distort the market” and the plaintiffs “who, in order to participate in the market, must abide their distortions.” The complaint alleges that this is the result of an opaque trading environment in which the defendant banks manipulate the bid-ask spreads through their negotiations with individual traders. These manipulations cost the plaintiffs billions of dollars, says the complaint. Plaintiffs allege that several of their attempts to create and regulated exchange were rebuffed by defendants.
Both the DOJ and the European Commission have been conducting their own investigations into these activities. In March, the EU indicated that “ISDA may have been involved in a coordinated effort of investment banks to delay or prevent exchanges from entering the credit derivatives business.”