By Matthew Goldstein and Jennifer Ablan and Philipp Halstrick

July 22 - U.S. prosecutors and European regulators are close to arresting individual traders and charging them with colluding to manipulate global benchmark interest rates, according to people familiar with a sweeping investigation into the rate-rigging scandal.

Federal prosecutors in Washington, D.C., have recently contacted lawyers representing some of the individuals under suspicion to notify them that criminal charges and arrests could be imminent, said two of those sources who asked not to be identified because the investigation is ongoing.

Defense lawyers, some of whom represent individuals under suspicion, said prosecutors have indicated they plan to begin making arrests and filing criminal charges in the next few weeks. In long-running financial investigations it is not uncommon for prosecutors to contact defense lawyers for individuals before filing charges to offer them a chance to cooperate or take a plea, these lawyer said.

The prospect of charges and arrests of individuals means that prosecutors are getting a fuller picture of how traders at major banks allegedly sought to influence the London Interbank Offered Rate, or Libor, and other global rates that underpin hundreds of trillions of dollars in assets. The criminal charges would come alongside efforts by regulators to punish major banks with fines, and could show that the alleged activity was not rampant in the banks.

"The individual criminal charges have no impact on the regulatory moves against the banks," said a European source familiar with the matter. "But banks are hoping that at least regulators will see that the scandal was mainly due to individual misbehavior of a gang of traders."

In Europe, financial regulators are focusing on a ring of traders from several European banks who allegedly sought to rig benchmark interest rates such as Libor, said the European source familiar with the investigation in Europe.

The source, who did not want to be identified because the investigation is ongoing, said regulators are checking through emails among a group of traders and believe they are now close to piecing together a picture of how they allegedly conspired to make money by manipulating the rates. The rates are set daily based on an average of estimates supplied by a panel of banks.

"More than a handful of traders at different banks are involved," said the source familiar with the investigation by European regulators.

There are also probes in Europe concerning Euribor, the Euro Interbank Offered Rate.

It is not clear what individuals and banks federal prosecutors are most focused on. A top U.S. Department of Justice lawyer overseeing the investigation did not respond to a request for a comment.

Reuters previously reported that more than a dozen current and former employees of several large banks are under investigation, including Barclays Plc, UBS and Citigroup, and have hired defense lawyers over the past year as a federal grand jury in Washington, D.C., continues to gather evidence.

The activity in the Libor investigation, which has been going on for three years, has quickened since Barclays agreed last month to pay $453 million in fines and penalties to settle allegations with regulators and prosecutors that some of its employees tried to manipulate key interest rates from 2005 through 2009.

Barclays, which signed a non-prosecution agreement with U.S. prosecutors, is the first major bank to reach a settlement in the investigation, which also is looking at the activities of employees at HSBC, Deutsche Bank and other major banks.

The Barclays settlement sparked outrage and a series of public hearings in Britain, after which Barclays Chief Executive Bob Diamond announced his resignation from the big British bank.

The revelations have raised questions about the integrity of Libor, which is used as benchmark in setting prices for loans, mortgages and derivative contracts.

Adding to concerns are documents released by the New York Federal Reserve Bank this month that show bank regulators in the United States and England had some knowledge that bankers were submitting misleading Libor bids during the 2008 financial crisis to make their financial institutions appear stronger than they really were.

Among other details, the Fed documents included the transcript of an April 2008 phone call between a Barclays trader in New York and Fed official Fabiola Ravazzolo, in which the unidentified trader said: "So, we know that we're not posting um, an honest LIBOR."

The source familiar with the regulatory investigation in Europe said two traders who have been suspended from Deutsche Bank were among those being investigated. A Deutsche Bank spokesman declined to comment.

The Financial Times reported on Wednesday that regulators were looking at suspected communication among four traders who had worked at Barclays, Credit Agricole, HSBC and Deutsche Bank.

Credit Agricole said it had not been accused of any wrongdoing related to the attempted manipulation of Libor by Barclays, but had responded to requests for information for various authorities related to the matter.

Beyond regulatory penalties and criminal charges, banks face a growing number of civil lawsuits from cities, companies and financial institutions claiming they were harmed by rate manipulation. Morgan Stanley recently estimated that the 11 global banks linked to the Libor scandal may face $14 billion in regulatory and legal settlement costs through 2014.

In the United States, the regulatory investigation is being led by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which has made the Libor probe one of its top priorities.

(Reporting by Matthew Goldstein and Jennifer Ablan in New York and Philipp Halstrick in Frankfurt, with additional reporting by Emily Flitter in New York and Aruna Viswanatha in Washington, D.C.; Editing by Alwyn Scott and Maureen Bavdek)

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  • BARCLAYS

    The UK bank has been at the centre of a very public storm since U.S. and British authorities fined it more than $450 million last month for its part in manipulating Libor. The ensuing backlash cost chief executive Bob Diamond and chairman Marcus Agius their jobs. The pair have appeared before a parliamentary committee to testify about what went on at the bank, in a scandal which has drawn in British central bankers and government ministers.

  • BANK OF AMERICA

    Bank of America is among the banks being investigated, a person familiar with the matter told Reuters last year. The bank did not comment in its 2011 annual report. It is one of 11 banks accused of conspiring to manipulate Libor in two lawsuits filed by discount brokerage and money manager Charles Schwab.

  • BTMU

    The Swiss Competition Commission said in February that Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ was among those it was investigating on suspicion of conspiring to manipulate rates. The Japanese bank did not comment on any probes in its 2011 annual report. This month, the group suspended two London-based traders as a result of a probe into manipulating interbank lending rates, but the bank said that was not to do with their conduct at BTMU. They had previously worked at Dutch lender Rabobank.

  • CITI

    Citigroup said its subsidiaries had received requests for information and documents as part of investigations in various jurisdictions. The U.S. bank said it was cooperating. The bank is also subject to a number of private lawsuits filed in the U.S. against banks that served on the Libor panel. In December, Japan's financial regulator said it would penalise the Japan securities units of Citigroup and UBS after finding that an individual who worked at UBS and then moved to Citi had, along with his boss at Citi, attempted to influence the Tokyo interbank offered rate (Tibor).

  • CREDIT SUISSE

    Credit Suisse is one of 12 banks being investigated by the Swiss Competition Commission about alleged collusive behaviour among traders to influence the bid ask spread for derivatives tied to Libor and Tibor as well as the rates themselves. Credit Suisse said it was cooperating fully.

  • DEUTSCHE BANK

    The German bank said it was cooperating with investigations in the United States and Europe in connection with setting rates between 2005 and 2011. It has had civil actions filed against it in the United States related to the setting of Libor. Germany's market regulator has launched a probe into the bank over suspected manipulation of interbank lending rates, sources have said. Results are expected in mid-July. German magazine Der Spiegel reported, citing no sources, that two Deutsche Bank employees have been suspended after external auditors examined whether staff were involved in manipulating rates.

  • LLOYDS

    Lloyds said it was cooperating with investigations. It has also been named in private lawsuits in the U.S. related to the setting of Libor. It said it 2011 annual report that it could not predict the ultimate outcome of investigations or lawsuits. In May, the bank said two derivatives traders had been suspended following an investigation into possible interest rate manipulation.

  • HSBC

    HSBC has said it received demands from regulators for information in connection with Libor investigations and it was cooperating. It has also been named in lawsuits related to Libor in the United States. HSBC said in its 2011 annual report that it could not predict the outcome of the investigations and lawsuits.

  • HBOS

    The bank, now a subsidiary of Lloyds, said it was cooperating with investigations. It has also been named in private U.S. lawsuits related to the setting of Libor. HBOS said it in its 2011 annual report it was not possible to predict the scope, outcome or impact of the investigations and lawsuits.

  • JPMORGAN

    JPMorgan said it was cooperating with regulators and government bodies investigating the setting of Libor, Euribor and Tibor rates, mainly in 2007 and 2008. It has also been named as a defendant in private U.S. lawsuits over Libor.

  • RABOBANK

    Rabobank said it was cooperating with investigations into possible manipulation of Libor rates. It has also been named as a defendant in a number of civil lawsuits in the United States. Rabobank said it was confident the claims would be held unfounded and was conducting its defence as such.

  • RBC

    Canada's largest bank did not make any comment in its 2011 annual report on its involvement in regulatory probes into possible manipulation of interbank lending rates.

  • RBS

    Royal Bank of Scotland said it was cooperating with investigators, who had requested information. RBS said members of its group had been named as defendants in a number of lawsuits in the United States. The bank said it had substantial defences to these claims. Following a newspaper report last month that it faced a 150 million pound fine, RBS said there could not be any certainty as to the timing or amount of any fine or settlement.

  • UBS

    The Swiss bank said it had been granted leniency or immunity from potential violations by some authorities, including the U.S. Justice Department and Swiss Competition Commission, in return for its cooperation in the Libor manipulation probe. It did not specify what information it was providing. In December, Japan's financial regulator said it would penalise the Japan securities units of Citigroup and UBS after finding that an individual who worked at UBS and then moved to Citi had attempted to influence Tibor. It has also been the subject of U.S. lawsuits.

  • WEST LB

    The German bank was among those being investigated, a person familiar with the matter told Reuters in March last year. The bank made no mention of the probes in its 2011 annual report. In July last year it was dropped, at its request, from the panel of banks contributing to daily fixings of Libor for U.S. dollars.

  • NORINCHUCKIN

    The Japanese bank did not mention the investigations into possible Libor manipulation in its 2011 annual report. In April last year it was one of 12 banks sued by Vienna-based asset manager FTC Capital, accused of conspiring to manipulate Libor.