Exactly how useful are regulations?

The CEO of a PR firm who has given the most convincing impression of being cheerful in the past few weeks was one who had decided a couple of years ago to invest heavily in a division to specialise in regulation and political lobbying.

Anthony Hilton
Anthony Hilton

Now, with the economic slowdown, people are thrashing around for someone to blame and regulation is on everyone's lips. His consumer PR business is marking time; his financial business is suffering from an absence of mergers, acquisitions or any other business. But each day brings in a new client worried that they might find themselves inadvertently caught by rules designed to penalise someone else entirely.

Though it is still relatively early, they want a lobbyist to gauge the mood in Westminster and let them know early on if they are likely to be in the firing line. Armed with that knowledge they can then fight their corner.

Financial crisis and regulation have always been connected. Indeed one always leads to another. Bankers are seen to have brought this crisis down on the heads of the rest of us because the system allowed them to take levels of risk that few people worried about at the time. The theory of greater regulation is that new rules will prevent this from happening again.

That is always the theory of regulation. But it normally does not stop things reoccurring because the problem is caused by an unwillingness to enforce the old rules rather than by those old rules being inadequate. People get caught up in the excitement of the moment, like the senior investment banker who once explained to me that his industry financed itself in exactly the same way as Enron and would implode just as spectacularly if confidence was ever lost - 'but of course that could never happen'.

That said, regulation meets a need - and not just in providing a source of work for PR firms in otherwise troubled times. In a way it fulfils the same purpose as a funeral and wake after a bereavement - it brings a kind of closure and allows people to move on. So it is useful - provided you don't think it will change anything.

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