City set for a shake-up – but will it work?

The financial services industry faces major changes in how it is policed. James Moore looks at what effect they are likely to have

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The Independent Online

Never again was the cry that rang through Westminster, Whitehall, the City and the rest of Britain in the wake of the financial crisis that devastated the country's economy. Since the Coalition Government took over it has proposed a far-reaching shake-up of the way the financial services industry is policed.

The aim is clear: make sure the taxpayer doesn't have to pump a penny more into financial services beyond the estimated £1trn or so that has been spent on direct aid to banks (bailing out Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds, Northern Rock, etc) and indirect aid to keep the financial system from falling into a black hole.

But what will it change and will it actually work?

Simon Morris, regulation partner at City law firm Cameron McKenna, sums it up this way: "What will change? A lot and a little. The shake-up is all to do with the way regulation is delivered. It is little to do with substance."

That is because, as Mr Morris points out, policy is made at the G20. The implementation of what is decided there is handled at the European level through directives. Delivery is about all that is left to national authorities.

Mr Morris says: "In terms of the G20, Britain does carry considerable clout. But in Europe its voice is a lot weaker. The new Mifid (Markets in Financial Instruments) directive, the market abuse directive, the hedge funds directive – the UK had very little input into these. All a state can do is design ways to deliver rules laid down in a directive that can't be altered."

The UK delivery system will, however, change quite radically. Previously the Financial Services Authority (FSA) handled day-to-day regulation, the Bank of England looked at stability and monetary policy. They came together in what was called the "tripartite" system with the Treasury at the top. But no one was quite sure who was in charge during the crisis.

Under the new system the Bank becomes all-powerful. The financial strength of banks and insurers will move from the FSA to a new Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA), a subsidiary of the Bank of England.

The Bank will also be charged with identifying long-term "systemic risks" such as house price bubbles, or the sort of cavalier lending to sub-prime borrowers that kicked off the last crisis, through a new and powerful Financial Policy Committee (FPC). It can force action where it sees problems.

Day-to-day supervision of financial sales and financial markets will be handled by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), accountable to the Treasury. It takes on much of what remains of the FSA, with the added requirement to ensure competitiveness of Britain's financial markets.

Says Mr Morris: "What they want is for regulation to be more judgemental, less about the rule book. But this is actually already in place. Firms are already being told to sell loss-making subsidiaries, to change chief executives, or to not launch certain new products. The changes are really like giving the watchdog a new collar and saying 'look what sharp new teeth it has'."

However, he adds: "What does differ is that the Bank of England dominates the landscape and the FPC holds a pivotal position. It is the glue between the economy and regulation.

"Overall I think it is a good thing. This is the whirlwind brewing in the City. None of it will be new, firms will have been feeling the wind.

"But for the economy as a whole, regulation should be smarter."

The Government will be pleased with the last comment. It has been caught on the horns of a nasty dilemma: despite all the talk of reducing Britain's over-reliance on financial services, it still accounts for 10-15 per cent of GDP; maybe more.

Ministers might decry bankers' bonuses and the conduct of financiers, but faced with a black hole in the public finances, they need the City and especially its tax revenues.

How then, to foster its success without exposing the taxpayer if it all goes wrong again?

Treasury sources say the shake-up is the answer to the dilemma. The Bill to create the new set up had its second reading on 6 February and the aim is for Royal Assent by the end of the year.

The Treasury minister Mark Hoban said in a recent speech: "Ineffective regulation and supervision of banking, and a banking system that pumped the economy full of cheap money, is the very reason we were confronted by a massive contraction in our economy. It is only through reform that we can ensure the stability of the financial sector as a foundation for the sustainable flow of lending to households and businesses across the economy.

"It's the kind of stability that we have brought to the financial sector by ensuring that our banks build their capital and liquidity reserves and lead efforts for greater transparency in the financial system, and through this Government's commitment to fundamental, regulatory reform."

As for the banks which have to deal with the changes, they will publicly voice support. No bank wants to get off to a bad start with its new regulator.

But behind the scenes they fear the Treasury's confidence is misplaced.

Says one senior banker: "We want to know where accountability sits. The problem with the PRA is that a regulator doesn't want things to fall over on their watch. The risk with the PRA is that it is staffed by people whose job is to ensure safety. And they want 100 per cent safety, which means we won't be able to lend anything.

"And yet, from other side you have politicians saying go out lend, don't worry about your client's history or whether people can pay back. Just lend. No one wants to go back to what we had before. It penalises prudence and rewards those who go wrong with a bailout. But getting the balance right is crucial. There is a sweet spot. The risk for the new structure is ... that they go too far in pushing safety first."

David Buik, the veteran City commentator, is slightly more upbeat.

He says: "Hindsight is the greatest trader on earth! However, I think we can take it as read that when Gordon Brown asked Sir Howard Davies to embrace nine regulatory authorities under one roof – which eventually became the FSA – Sir Howard probably bit off more than anyone could chew.

"This Government's decision to put the FSA under the umbrella of the Bank of England must be correct.

"The number of fines for improper behaviour has increased and the protection of the consumer has tightened up significantly, and the installment of Andrew Haldane as the man in charge of financial stability should ensure that there is no repetition of the disasters and machinations of 2007/9."