Page last updated at 22:29 GMT, Monday, 20 October 2008 23:29 UK

The world's most important number?

By Mark Broad
Business producer, BBC News

Canary Wharf seen from above
The financial crisis has engulfed the world's biggest banks
On the fifth floor of an imposing building in London's Canary Wharf, six people are putting together one of the world's most important numbers.

Every weekday morning, as the clock ticks round to 11, the group's members wait patiently for the numbers to arrive.

These are the figures that will determine the day's Libor rate, or rather the rate banks charge when they lend each other money.

"It's a huge responsibility," says Brian Martin from Thomson Reuters, who heads up the team.

"The number we produce goes on to determine the price of trillions of financial products all over the world."

Secret office

The London Interbank Offered Rate, or Libor, has become something of a celebrity amongst financial statistics over the last year as the credit crunch has begun to bite.

To get a sense of the importance of Libor to the financial system you only have to look at the precautions that the team goes to make sure that the figure always gets published on time.

Libor facts
Libor stands for the London Interbank Offered Rate
Started on 1 Jan 1986
Determines $360 trillion worth of financial products
Currencies include the New Zealand dollar and the Swedish Krona
Run by the British Bankers' Association

Not only do they have an emergency evacuation office in Canary Wharf.

They also have another permanently staffed office at a secret location outside London.

Every team member also has a dedicated phone line in their home in case they are prevented from getting to the office, by an incident such as a terrorist attack.

Nothing, it seems, is going to come between Libor and the wider world.

Trillions of dollars

As Libor measures the rates at which banks are prepared to lend to each other, it follows that it also determine the rate at which they are prepared to lend to their customers.

There's a huge sense of frustration amongst everyone that rates have stayed so high
David Buik, BGC Partners

It eventually goes on to set the rate of $360 trillion (210 trillion) worth of financial products worldwide, ranging from mortgage rates to car loans.

The UK banks have traditionally been net borrowers in the world money markets, relying on banks from countries like Japan to provide them with the money they need.

But the past year has seen Libor rates soar well above the official Bank of England or other central bank rates as commercial banks have reined in lending, fearful that they might not get the cash back.

As the money markets have dried up, some of the biggest banks in the UK have been deprived of the finances they need for their day to day activities.

This has in turn forced the banks to withdraw some of their most generous products and cut back on the amounts that they lend to their customers.

Kiwi dollars and British sterling

The Libor number is compiled by putting together the estimates of the cost of borrowing from at least eight banks, discarding the highest and lowest of the sample to leave an average rate which then becomes the daily 'Libor Fix'.

The same calculation is made with another 10 currencies from all over the world as well as at a number of durations - ranging from overnight to a year.

Thus, as well as determining the rates at which banks lend in US dollars and British Sterling, there are also borrowing rates for currencies such as New Zealand dollar and Swedish kronor.

Banks and companies then use the 'fix' to calculate the rates at which they will do business with each other, which in turns determines the rates offered to their customers.

Libor's influence is not restricted to banking; it's also used as a worldwide interest rate benchmark for corporate deals and lending agreements.

Swearing and borrowing

While the 'fix' is used as a financial lending yardstick, Libor is also traded on a minute-by-minute basis by financial institutions across the world.

So few banks are actually trading with each other at the moment so the Libor rate is representing a very small number of transactions

James Ferguson, Pali International

Just across Canary Wharf from the Thomson Reuters offices is the busy trading floor of the money brokers, BGC Partners.

The room is dominated by the sound of expletive-laden shouting from traders who are acting as the intermediary between banks who are looking to lend or borrow.

The brokers use specially installed phone lines between them and their clients in the banks to negotiate the deals, as well as a multitude of screens displaying the most current market information.

On the floor surveying the organised chaos is David Buik from BGC Partners.

Mr Buik has worked in the City for 46 years, but even he has never experienced the spikes of the interbank lending market over the past year.

"Before the current crisis, the brokers here were doing a steady stream of Libor business, but with money markets paralysed they're just having to get on with other work,"

"There's a huge sense of frustration amongst everyone that rates have stayed so high," says Buik.

Lender of last resort

The reluctance of the banks to lend to each other has forced them to look to their central banks to step in to get the lending flows moving again.

And according to James Ferguson, a stockbroker and economist at Pali International, the current situation is making Libor increasingly irrelevant.

"So few banks are actually trading with each other at the moment so the Libor rate is representing a very small number of transactions," he says.

"The big institutions are increasingly dependent on the central banks for cash and until this ends we'll not see Libor rates falling."

So despite all the attention concentrated on its daily fluctuations, it seems that the lack of trust between banks has rendered the market almost silent.

But with the eyes of politicians, bankers and customers fixed on the daily Libor numbers, it seems unlikely that the attention will disappear.

Sterling Libor

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