A feeding frenzy for the starved regulators

"Now at last, the prospect of an open-and-shut case looms. And it holds all the required elements - top-drawer personalities, publicity, restored pride"
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The Independent Online
Mention the word regulator and the image that comes to mind is of anonymous pen pushers determined to shun the limelight, and always away for their tea and slippers by 5pm. Mention the word Barings, and think again. The regulators jostling for the spotlight in the investigations of the fallen merchant bank seem more like oiled bodybuilders flashing their frightening pectorals in a Mr Universe competition.

Who can blame them? For years now, the City's pack of regulators and investigators have been humiliated by repeated failures to nail their suspects. There have been plenty of small fry, dodgy accountants and shifty brokers, brought to book. But the really big ones, those that win the regulatory plaudits, have slipped away amidst peals of laughter.

At last, the prospect of an open-and-shut case looms. And it holds all the required elements - top drawer personalities, publicity, restored pride. Barings is not an insider dealing case, which are notoriously difficult to conclude successfully, even when the entire City smells a very whiffy rat. The investigators into the demise of Barings are looking for evidence of fraud, negligence and managerial incompetence, and whether individuals are fit and proper to work as financiers. Such misdemeanours offer broad scope for interpretation, and success.

One only has to listen to the excited talk of Christopher Sharples - who, as chairman of the Securities and Futures Authority, has in the past been somewhat reluctant to go public - to realise that here is a man transported, after years of hunger, broken teeth and despair, by the smell of raw meat.

Barings is a feeding frenzy for the regulators, each trying to shove the other out of the way. The SFA wants its prize, and is snapping at the Bank of England. The Bank itself, trying to divert attention from its own shortcomings in the Barings calamity and daily abuse from the Treasury, desperately needs a few heads to impale on the stakes in Threadneedle Street. The Serious Fraud Office is impatient to show that it is serious about anything. Around them snap other investigators, from Ernst and Young and ING, the new Dutch owners of Barings, not to mention the Singapore authorities. It is quite a sight. Almost enough to make one spare a moment of sympathy for the Barings folk. As always, it is also a bit of a case of slamming the stable door after the horse has bolted.