FCA's 'Harry Regulator and the Philosopher's Mission' is no bestseller

The watchdog has published a windy novella outlining its mission, and promised a sequel. Its budget would be better spent on actually protecting the public as opposed to talking about protecting the public

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The boss of the City watchdog has turned novelist on us: Andrew Bailey wants to be a regulatory JK Rowling, and his first title is sure to fly off the shelves. 

“Harry Regulator and the Philosopher's Mission” runs to 30 pages, so its more novella than novel. 

It explains how the watchdog plans to “serve the public interest through the objectives given to us by Parliament” under his direction. And I can promise you’ll be hooked.

“This Mission is a high-level document. It sets out the framework for the strategic decisions we make, the reasoning behind our work and the way we choose the tools to do it,” we are told. Clear the shelves!

The lucky people who work at the regulator will no doubt all be getting free copies, as will newbies. Congratulations: You’ve successfully applied for a job at the FCA. This tells you how we do our work. Try to bear it mind as you go about your business. 

What? You’re saying it’s a bit hard to digest and that it will take all day to make even the simplest of decisions if you have to refer to it? 

Take it up with the staff advisory committee if you really want. But bear in mind the boss thinks this is really big deal. So I wouldn’t make too much of a fuss. 

Setting up a review of the Financial Conduct Authority's “mission” was one of Mr Bailey's first big decisions. You’d think that he and the watchdog would have better things to do than spend months gazing into their own navels but apparently not. And disturbingly, there’s more to come. 

“We will publish a number of documents that will give a clearer explanation of the way we carry out our main activities,” the document promises on its back cover. All together now: Nooooo! 

Here's something that should really scare you: Rowling’s readers will be aware that the first novel in the Harry Potter series ran to a snappy 223 pages. The fifth (and longest) outing, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, came in at 766 pages. If Mr Bailey and his scribes go down that road, “Harry Regulator and the Ordering of the City” could break the internet when if it gets sent around by email. 

I suppose there’s one benefit: The NHS might save a few quid on prescriptions for Zopiclone, at least if the first outing is anything to go by. It's a wonderful cure for insomnia.

Here’s a short sample: “Public value is the collective value that an organisation contributes to society. This is in contrast to private or market value, which is the value of a good or service to an individual customer and provider. Our aim is to add public value by improving how financial markets operate, to benefit individuals, businesses and the UK economy.”

And the point of that is... what, precisely? 

It’s worth noting that this came out on the same day that the regulator revealed that it was planning to increase its annual funding requirement to £526.9m, a modest rise of £7.6m over the previous year. 

I was going to make a case that that isn’t enough, and that the watchdog needs to keep its salaries competitive with those on offer elsewhere in the City. If the FCA wants to fulfil its “mission”, it needs to keep its troops happy and at least make a stab at retaining the best of them, given that many could potentially more than double their money by joining big banks or law firms. 

However, if they’re spending all their time producing stuff like “Harry Regulator”, as opposed to, you know, regulating, then I’m not sure we need to worry too much about that. 

Mr Bailey is a clever man, and a rarity in the world of regulation in that he can act tough when he's so inclined while still commanding a great deal of respect from the people who run the businesses he oversees. But this obsession with defining  the FCA’s “mission” might very well put that at risk. 

He’s rather fallen into the same trap that one of his regulated firms fell into when it got into a mess. 

Reeling from a string of scandals, Goldman Sachs told the world it was going to clean up its act. 

This led it to publish a windy and woolly 63-page document that was widely ridiculed. How could anyone at the sharp end be expected to call upon what amounted to a (very boring) novel to guide their decision making?

I doubt the FCA’s motivations are quite as cynical as Goldman’s – the Financial Times suggested its aim was to bore its detractors into submission leaving the bank free to conduct its business the way it always had. 

However, the net result is basically the same.

What the FCA has done here is generate a lot of hot air and in so doing has produced a document that seems designed to tell us things that really ought to be self-evident.

Here's what it should have said: “We exist to protect the public, ensure the orderly functioning of markets, both retail and wholesale, fulfil the obligations set out by Parliament. 

“Approaching our work, we will communicate effectively and act proportionately. We will be firm but fair and we will do our best to be transparent. We will be a common sense regulator and we will encourage our staff to operate in that manner.” 

Beneath that, it could have included a list of bullet points, putting a bit of flesh on the bones. The whole thing should have run to a couple of pages at most so it would have been understandable to everyone.

Unlike Harry Potter, it shouldn’t require any magic to get such a document finished quickly. Then on to the job in hand: protecting the public, ensuring the overly functioning of markets and so on.