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Financial Services Bill

February 6, 2012

The Eurozone Crisis

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster, Conservative) To be frank, I still regard too much of this legislation as deficient, and I shall touch on some specific concerns, but it would be remiss not to give the Treasury significant credit for some of the work it has done. The extensive and broadly constructive pre-legislative consultation by the Joint Committee is a positive step. The outstanding and ongoing contribution of the Treasury Committee will help to focus the Government’s mind on some of the key institutional pitfalls. There is also an increasing recognition by the Treasury that this is an area of public policy where political judgments will need to be made, and that ultimately the buck must stop with it, not with the Bank of England, however good a Governor we may have.

My general dissatisfaction relates first and foremost to the inevitable guillotine in this House, which means that the high-level sophisticated scrutiny will have to come from the other place, and I fear that that shows our House in a poor light. It is not that we lack collective experience in this crucial field, but the wish of Governments, throughout my 11 years in the House, to get legislation through by whipped votes means that we continue to fail to hold the Executive to account, particularly on such important pieces of legislation.

This is probably the only area where I have some sympathy with the shadow Chancellor. The genesis of the Bill was perhaps a rather simplistic political analysis surrounding the financial collapse of 2007-08. It was not really the tripartite system of regulation that was at the heart of those concerns, but an old-fashioned debt and credit bubble and the global imbalance between the east and the west. It is important that we recognise that, because the result was not simply the failing of banks, bankers and Labour politicians; the simplistic analysis also fails to answer the core question that has dogged regulators ever since the financial crisis began: “When the crash came, who was in charge?” The risk is that we will replace an unsatisfactory tripartite system with a potentially even more complex four-way system. I think that there is a risk that that will come to pass, although I do not buy into the shadow Chancellor’s entire analysis. In truth, the new FCA will have too few people of the requisite expertise and sound judgment. Unsurprisingly, it remains very unloved and unrespected by too many professionals in the City, and I am afraid that that matters, given the important role that it will have.

Let me touch on some of the more substantial political issues that the press have not focused very much on. There is an overall concern about how prescriptive the new regime will be, and to what extent the Bill will recalibrate things in a way that will have unintended and potentially damaging consequences for the industry, the UK and the consumer. I will give a few examples. On the warning notice publicity, the Bill will change the current position whereby enforcement action becomes public only at the end of the process, after the firm has decided whether to go to tribunal, and before that stage has had two opportunities to make representations. The new approach means that there will be negative publicity at the stage of the warning notice—the first notice—and the firm will have no right to make representations before that. The reality is that, essentially, the Daily Mail test means that all the damage to the firm’s reputation will be done before any due process has been gone through. The argument in favour of the change is that this is similar to a criminal case, but that misses the important difference between the cases, and represents a worrying trend in the thinking, to the effect that everyone in the industry is somehow a would-be criminal.

Mark Garnier (Wyre Forest, Conservative) Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster, Conservative) I am afraid that I will not.

Product regulation and financial promotion powers are another issue. There are powers to intervene earlier in the product life cycle and ban financial promotions. There is an argument that the FSA already has the power to do this. The big political point is the balance between market and regulatory failure. All the debate has been about how the powers are needed to prevent market failure and how the regulator will be far more involved in product design and in the business. It is difficult to argue with the concept, but the position that there is no moral hazard in going down this route is arguably naïve, and fails to recognise that the regulators never have perfect vision.

The cost of regulation is in many ways the dog that has not barked. There is nothing in the Bill to apply more financial discipline to either the PRA or the FCA, so the cost-benefit analysis does not apply to the rules that they have in place. We must also ask how the new regulators will work together. The Bill sets out certain principles for the memorandum of understanding between the PRA and the FCA, which is perhaps all that can be expected. However, that leaves on trust a lot of the detail of how the new organisations will work together. That is a key practical issue for firms if this is not to lead to new and inconsistent regulation.

One good example relates to threshold conditions. The Bill provides the PRA and the FCA with the power to make threshold condition codes, which will elaborate on the conditions and how they will apply to different classes of firm. Those codes will be binding. What will happen if the two regulators take inconsistent approaches on, for example, explaining what they mean by the suitability condition? The last thing anyone wants is the development of an industry engaged in arbitrage between the two inconsistent approaches to regulation for different parts of the industry. That is a particular worry for dual- regulated firms, and firms left under the FCA, such as fund managers, are concerned that they could suffer from more heavy-handed regulation, rather than the more senatorial style that it is assumed the PRA will adopt.

Will there be enough of the secondary framework to be able to consider the new structure properly? That is a general question, and one example is whether investment firms are within the PRA’s scope. Firms do not yet know, and things keep changing. For example, the Government agree that the risks posed by investment firms and the concerns arising from last autumn’s MF Global failure should continue to be subject to scrutiny by the authorities, which might change the boundary. The point about MF Global is that it did not take proprietary positions, and so would have fallen on the FCA side. The argument is that the organisation has caused great systemic problems, and so surely should have been regulated by the PRA.

That question has now been partly—but only partly— addressed, through the draft designation order published on the Treasury’s website, setting out the criteria that the PRA will apply when considering whether it should designate individual firms as “dealing in investments as principal” for PRA regulation. Has enough thought been given to that issue, however? There is a parallel debate about large hedge fund managers, who deal only as agents, and therefore stay on the FCA side, yet arguably pose a systemic risk themselves. It is hard to look at the new framework in the round until all such details are sorted out.

I shall conclude soon, because I appreciate that other Members have more to say.

Indeed, there is so much more that I could say myself. One issue that has been widely discussed is the competition objective, which was especially well dealt with in the Joint Committee’s report. The point often missed is that the whole discussion is about competition within the market, and whether that itself should be an objective or principle to which the FCA ought to be compelled to have regard. It is not about the more fundamental issue of the competitiveness of the UK as a financial services centre, important though that is. That says something about the new approach to the industry. I fear that we risk throwing the out baby with the bathwater. Why should the UK not have regard to the competitiveness of one of its most important industries, subject to the other important goals of market stability and consumer protection? Rebalancing the economy is all well and good, but it should not mean undermining the vital importance of the City and of financial services to the UK as a whole.