James Moore: When talking tough isn't the name of the game

Wasn't financial regulation supposed to have turned over a new leaf? With phrases like "proactive", "intrusive" and "harsh" taking over from "light touch" and "risk based". That is certainly what the Financial Services Authority would have us believe. Talking tough has been the name of the game in recent months. The FSA's outgoing boss, Hector Sants, even suggested that banks should feel "frightened" of the watchdog.

If events at JP Morgan are anything to go by, that fear is about the same as what you might expect to feel from watching a Walt Disney cartoon in the middle of the day with all the lights turned on.

Like most banks, JP Morgan has griped about the FSA's new regulatory landscape. But, then, banks complain about any increase in regulation, however small that increase might be. Turkeys don't vote for Christmas.

The question that needs to be asked is whether the FSA's talk resulted in any real action. The JP Morgan affair doesn't suggest an answer we should be comfortable with.

Why was it motivated to locate such an important operation as its chief investment office in London? Which, in the view of most US banks, is basically a mere branch office at the centre of the Europe, Middle East and Africa region. Even if it was under the watchful eye of one of the bank's highest flyers, the now dethroned Queen of Wall Street Ina Drew, it seems a strange decision to make. London hardly presents lots of advantages when it comes to, say, tax.

One of the explanations for the decision might be because the regulations and the people enforcing them were less likely to result in awkward questions being asked in London than they might have done in New York.

It is worth noting that US and British regulators have known about JP Morgan's London trading losses for some time. But it certainly appears that US regulators have been more alive to the situation.

Despite the fact that the snafu occurred on this side of the pond, things appear to be moving rapidly Stateside. Even the FBI has got in on the act. Here, a month after the regulators knew about the problem, they had still not ordered the bank to produce a blow-by-blow account of what went on through the commission of a section 166 report, which is usually done quite soon after problems have been identified.

It's true that banks will always make losses. But as more and more revelations have emerged about the operations of JP's chief investment office, it has become clear that this is not just the case of a simple trading loss. When the dust has settled, questions need to be asked about why the regulators on this side of the Atlantic have been so (apparently) slow to react.