Honing the sword of justice

The new City regulator is needed but it won't have a smooth ride, says Richard Halstead
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The Independent Online
As one might expect, the Bank of England is stuffed with history and tradition. Some of it is quirky: doormen in pink coats and red waistcoats vet all entrants; doorknobs do not turn in the conventional way; to open a door, a concealed button on the knob must be pushed.

But most can be described as the practices of an institution well used to its role as the City's policeman and concerned parent. The orderly morning meetings at which the issues of the day are discussed - money supply, regulation and so on - are as regular and familiar as the seasons.

The "Old Lady" has resided in Threadneedle Street since 1694, and seen off the crises of many wars (it was originally set up, with mostly Huguenot cash, to fund William III's war against France and the exiled James II), and taken action over many more institutional failures. Since 1844, when it was given a monopoly to print banknotes, it has acted as de facto head prefect of the banking system, a role cemented after nationalisation by the Labour government in 1946.

All this is about to change. For the first time in more than 150 years the bank will no longer be the ultimate authority of the banking system. It has all happened so fast; only two weeks ago the Bank had its power to set interest rates independently restored by Gordon Brown, the new Chancellor - something its governor, Eddie George, has lobbied for ever since he took the job five years ago. Yet last Tuesday, in what appeared to be a virtually impromptu announcement, Mr Brown swept away generations of tradition and practice and took away the head prefect's job.

Responsibility for the health, welfare and good behaviour of Britain's huge financial services sector - one of the few consistently expanding areas of the economy - will fall to a brand new (well, almost brand new) regulator, the Securities and Investments Board (SIB). The SIB has been around since the 1986 Financial Services Act, but its role has been somewhat vague.

Now it will have direct authority to call all City financial institutions to account, over what new types of business will be allowed. Ultimately it will decide whether an institution within its remit lives or dies. "This will be a strongly centralised organisation, not a federal system," says Howard Davies, the newly-appointed chairman of SIB who will take charge in July.

To the casual observer, this may not seem a very big deal. The strengthened SIB - or "SuperSIB" - will be chaired by Mr Davies, who for the past two years has been a deputy governor of the Bank of England. And for the next few years at least, the same - or similar - faces will be overseeing City affairs from the regulatory perches they already occupy. The only physical change so far announced is that the banking supervision staff at the Bank of England will move into a new office, to join staff from the Personal Investment Authority (PIA), the private pensions watchdog, Imro, the fund management regulator, and the Securities and Futures Authority (SFA), the securities industry regulator.

That is the detail. The bigger picture is much more interesting. The proposals that are emerging from government and Mr Davies call for an immense and powerful integrated regulator, the like of which the world has not seen yet - not even in the US system, where the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and Federal Reserve are held up as models of how things should be done. Indeed, the US system separates powers of securities regulation (to the SEC), banking supervision (to the Controller of Currency's office) and monetary policy (the Fed), and is probably not a good model.

"The idea of having insurance sales separated from securities transactions or banking is way out of date," says one former US regulator. "There is a compelling logic in having an entity that looks over all financial services institutions, because so many are now involved in the same, or virtually the same, business."

There seems to be broad agreement on this in the City. Nicholas Durlacher, head of the SFA, sees logic in centralising regulatory control because "there was far too much overlap between the SFA and the Bank. We would like to see a lot of the SFA rulebook and staff incorporated in the new SIB and we hope to get a fair crack in filling jobs."

Bank insiders admit that the two functions of regulation and monetary policy have grown so far removed that they are effectively separate entities. At the same time the regulation side has been getting so large and complex that financial services bosses were concerned that none of the organisations - the Bank, the old SIB, and the gaggle of self-regulating organisations - was up to the task on its own

The move to a SuperSIB "reflects what is happening on the ground, where most financial institutions are now selling banking and insurance products," says Peter Ellwood, chief executive of Lloyds TSB. "This will be a cleaner, tidier and better arrangement for regulators, institutions and the consumer."

Helen Liddell, the Government's new economic secretary to the Treasury and the person charged with making the shakeup work, says the changes are all about making the work of the City policemen "transparent and responsible".

"It is self-evident that self-regulation has not worked the way it should have," Ms Liddell says. "We have to give people greater confidence in the system."

The Bank's attitude to all this has shifted as the week has gone by, and will no doubt change some more as the true picture of power and influence in the Square Mile emerges. "The big prize was getting control of monetary policy," says one senior Bank man. "Losing banking supervision was not worth going to the stake over."

Tinkering with a system that has run relatively smoothly is potentially dangerous. What, for instance, happens to the Bank? As well as its newly- granted monetary power, it retains responsibility for "financial stability", a loosely-defined role that in practice means that it is charged with maintaining adequate liquidity in the banking system.

Such a position would, in theory, mean that the Bank retains its position as the lender of last resort. Not so, according to one treasury mandarin. "It is simply not true to say that the Bank can fulfil that role in the modern era. The bank will not be the lender of last resort for individual institutions any more."

And what if another Barings were to happen? Who would the beleaguered executives call? "The regulator." The Bank would have some "consultancy" process, but the chain of command would be: institution in trouble, to Howard Davies, to Treasury. The Bank may oppose this strongly as plans move on to an official footing.

The changes will be enacted in two stages. The first, enshrined in a new Bank of England Act to be introduced in Parliament in the autumn, will pass responsibility for banking supervision to the SIB.

The second piece of legislation, not expected until late next year, will abolish the self-regulatory organisations - the PIA, Imro, the SFA - and fold their staff and functions into SuperSIB. It is believed the preferred option is to organise the new mega-regulator along the lines of functions - day-to-day monitoring, investigation, enforcement - with some deference to the fact that retail business (selling pensions to you and me) has different requirements to wholesale business (securities transactions between firms).

In the interim, Ms Liddell expects the SIB, the self-regulatory organisations and the Bank of England to work "very closely together to ensure a smooth transfer of power". In effect, this means that Bank staff concerned with banking regulation who currently report to Eddie George will answer direct to Howard Davies. So will the various heads of the self-regulators, who were effectively independent bodies.

However an interesting point to emerge in the wake of Mr Brown's announcement is that most of the amalgamation into SuperSIB will be completed by the time these pieces of legislation are even debated, let alone passed. Mr Davies says this is purely practical: "It is no good telling the market we're going to stop regulating for a year until we're reorganised."

There remains much to be cleared up, and the lobbying has already started between City and government over who will be included in SuperSIB. Will the building societies be included? "There could be logic in bringing them all under one umbrella," is Mr Davies's response. But why stop there? What about including other self-regulating bodies like the Law Society and the Institute of Chartered Accountants? Another pragmatic suggestion being considered is to fold all the ombudsmen - the consumer advocates whose remits are now split into company pensions, personal pensions, insurance, banking, and so on - into one department with the resources to tackle consumer complaints across a range of issues.

The range of issues still to be hammered out is potentially endless. In terms of long-term City health, the changes - whatever form they take - will probably improve the way business is conducted in the City. But if in the process of making the changes the politicians, the Bank and the other regulators end up not being on speaking terms because of mishandled decisions or perceived slights, then bad feeling might overshadow any benefits. One banker worried last week that "institutions that are three centuries old do not turn on sixpences".