Davies expects the world to follow where his FSA leads

Howard Davies is aiming to make Britain's new Financial Services Authority a role model for financial regulation throughout the world. In this interview with Jeremy Warner, the FSA chairman explains his concept of `lead regulation' and talks about the lessons for banking supervisors of the crisis in the Far East.

Howard Davies leans forward in his chair and with a twinkle in his eye declares that when the still nascent Financial Services Authority moves to Canary Wharf in London's Docklands in three months' time, it will become an entirely open-plan organisation.

"No one will have a private office," he says, "and that includes me. It helps settle the argument over who has his own office and who doesn't. No one will. It should also help counter the perception of some great, unwieldy bureaucracy.

"There will be meeting rooms and quiet rooms, and of course there will be a conference and meeting centre on the first floor where all those bankers and securities firms who come to confess their sins can meet with officials in private. So it won't be too bad."

When up and running, the FSA will pull together under one roof what are at present nine distinct industry regulators with a total staff of more than 2,000. As head of this all-encompassing organisation, Mr Davies's job will be to prevent banks from going bust, stop crooks from selling shares, clamp down on dodgy savings products, and discipline miscreants.

As such, he is set to become the most powerful financial regulator in the world - more omnipresent than any counterpart even in New York or Tokyo.

Mr Davies, a former director general of the Confederation of British Industry, McKinsey's management consultant and Treasury mandarin, faces a daunting task in bringing about this organisational change while at the same time maintaining and improving on present levels of financial supervision.

Many in the City believe the plan to be flawed, that the disciplines and rigours required to regulate retail and wholesale markets are so fundamentally different from each other that they cannot be combined in one organisation.

But Mr Davies, a determined and sometimes eccentric operator, is convinced the FSA will pull it off and that others will be forced to follow Britain's lead.

Right now he's running to meet a number of tight deadlines. The most important of these is production of the FSA's budget, which is scheduled to go out to consultation in the middle of next month. Also out to consultation for the first time will be the FSA's management plan and its proposed regulatory infrastructure.

Central to this will be the idea of "lead regulation", a concept which Mr Davies sees as key to adequate financial regulation of increasingly global capital markets and organisations.

"It means that when a regulator phones from abroad to ask about a particular company, there will always be a lead point of contact, someone who is directly responsible, even though supervision of some parts of the company may be matrixed out within the FSA.

Mr Davies sees the present lack of co-ordination between regulators, at a national and international level, as a core weakness in financial supervision.

"Even in the US, there is confusion about the responsible regulator. If you have a query about Goldman Sachs, it is not clear whether you should go to the Fed or the SEC. No one has direct responsibility.

"We believe our concept of consolidated supervision to be an essential building block of future regulation and we would like to see this approach duplicated throughout the world. There is general international agreement that we should have something like this. It will be on the agenda again for the G7 summit in Birmingham next May.

"But in some areas of the world there are big problems with it. The fear is that regulation won't be properly independent of government or that commercially confidential information will leak."

Even so, Mr Davies believes there are drawbacks in present "home and host" regulatory arrangements, under which supervisors are responsible for their home banks even when operating in overseas territories.

"Nearly every complicated banking transaction that happens in Europe is likely to be done in London these days. That means there are Continental banks doing things in London which they don't do at home, yet we, the London regulator, are not responsible under present arrangements for their supervision. That's up to the host regulator.

"The key thing in Europe, then, is building links between banking supervisors so that we are all at one in the way we treat banking supervision throughout Europe."

Because London is the world's largest international financial market place, the FSA is bound to play a key role in enhancing global supervision and regulation of markets. However, Mr Davies does not believe that the coming of the single currency will drive Europe towards a single financial regulator too.

"I doubt the City, the world's biggest international financial market place, would want to be regulated by an office in Brussels. In any case I'm sceptical that the single currency will lead quickly to a single retail banking market.

"So far, most attempts at a pan European bank have come to grief. No one is trying to do that anymore and most of the consolidation we are seeing in the industry is domestic.

"There is no sign of the sort of consolidation that would argue for a single European regulator. Anyway, we've taken a 15-year lease on our Canary Wharf offices and we'll see how we go after that."

Mr Davies is adamant that the crisis in the Far East is to some extent about a failure in regulation. A feature common to the entire region has been a fragile banking system, which in turn was caused by inadequate rules of disclosure and regulation.

"Large non-performing assets were kept on the books in a way that would have been unacceptable in Europe or the US. And there were virtually no rules to govern connected lending. In many cases banks were effectively lending to themselves, to connected industrial companies or to the pet projects of leading politicians."

Mr Davies brandishes a pen with a flat-topped cap. Superglued to the top is a tiny Mexican centavo coin. "I put it there after the Mexican crisis as a warning of what can happen," he says.

"But I feel that in fairness to the Mexicans I should now be removing it. I wonder if there is a similarly sized Korean or Indonesian coin I could replace it with?"

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