Financial sector braces for sweeping reforms

The Conservatives' plans to overhaul regulation of financial services are regarded with trepidation by the industry. Alec Mattinson reports on a lobbying battle that has descended into infighting.

City: shake-up. Illustration: Paul Bateman
City: shake-up. Illustration: Paul Bateman

For all David Cameron's talk of inclusiveness, social justice and environmentalism upon being named leader of the Conservative Party, it is the subject of financial regulation that has emerged as one of his hot-button issues of the next election.

The Conservatives have traditionally been more at home championing the desire to cut red tape, but have found a penchant for unwinding a few scarlet rolls of their own following the global financial crisis. Their most notable proposal is the abandonment of the tripartite regulatory system by dissolving the Financial Services Authority as a result of its 'failures' in the run-up to the crisis, and transferring much of its power back to the Bank of England.

In parallel with political and public thinking, there is an acknowledgement across the financial services industry that the much-championed 'light touch' regulation is no longer a realistic proposition.

As one banking comms director notes: 'Everything has changed so radically in the City that reform is only to be expected.'

However, there is certainly an almost inevitable nervousness in the City about the process by which extra regulation will occur. 'Banking relies on self-regulation and self-sufficiency. If you constrain that risk-and-reward model, what do you get instead?' asks one financial services head of communications.

In this sense, it is the tenor of the regulatory reform rather than the specific new structures that most concern financial comms specialists.

'We don't have a firm view on the future of the FSA,' says Lesley McLeod, executive director, comms at the British Banking Association. 'But as an industry, we must have clear regulation and a clear system of accountability.'

While the policy proposals remain just proposals, this clarity is elusive, but others in the industry speak about confusion between Conservative political rhetoric and any ultimate material change.

The comms approach of the Tories to this issue also comes under fire from a comms head at a significant UK financial institution: 'The timing of the White Paper (proposing the tripartite dismantling) was incredibly unhelpful. It destabilised a powerful international regulator that was doing significant work to bring the international community into alignment in the middle of the crisis.'

Concern over disruption

It is the potential disruption from these changes rather than their precise nature that is causing most concern. Financial services firms have been preaching the wisdom of incremental change - such as the way it took Labour most of its first term to push through its new regulatory structures.

The Tories appear sympathetic to these pleas and shadow chancellor George Osborne has suggested a transition period away from the FSA lasting months or even several years.

Nevertheless, some disruption is inevitable and will cause headaches for companies' compliance departments. One source notes it is inevitable that the 'greater the compliance, the greater the cost and there is no choice but to pass that on to the consumer'.

The BBA's McLeod notes there are also a number of issues to negotiate to enable a smooth transition: 'How do you deal with the fact that the Bank of England no longer has staff with experience of banking supervision? Or the FSA's relationship with the OFT and issues of consumer redress? Perhaps a more holistic and less piecemeal view of regulatory change might be of benefit.'

There is a strong industry lobbying effort under way - evidenced by Cameron's talks with senior bankers at Davos - and the Tories are allowing industry figures and bodies a seat at the table.

Huw Evans, director of corporate affairs at the Association of British Insurers, notes: 'We have been reassured by the Tory willingness to listen to the industry about how these changes should be implemented to minimise disruption.'

Conflict over issues

But one area where the banking industry in particular might find the Tories less compliant is President Obama's plans to split up retail banks from their trading functions.

The senior banking PRO argues the Tories 'misinterpreted what Obama announced and rushed comment out'. But the party insists it has been consistent in arguing that large-scale proprietary trading should be separated from retail banks and that must be done internationally - a clear departure from the current Government's approach.

'Not the right issue,' insists McLeod, who claims that, globally, it was not generally the larger multi-function banks that failed. She also argues that such measures could have a material impact on restricting lending because various arms of the split-up banks would need to hold more capital against each business entity.

The idea of capping banking bonuses is another contentious issue. Cameron and Osborne have stood up to the industry by broadly backing the Government's one-year bonus tax - even against the wishes of London Mayor Boris Johnson.

But one of the key lobbying stumbling blocks facing the financial services industry is that there is no unified lobbying voice pulling everyone in the same direction.

While banking PROs talk of the 'dodgy practices' of the insurance sector and how it has got off lightly in regulatory terms, the ABI's Evans notes 'insurers are very nervous that changes will be made that do not discriminate between the different business models of insurance and banking'.

So while there is broad agreement that regulatory failure facilitated the crisis and an acceptance that the era of the regulatory 'light touch' is over, concern remains about the scope and management of any changes. As one FS comms head put it: 'We need more considered regulation, not more of it.'

FINANCIAL REFORM - TORY POLICIES

Abolish the Financial Services Authority and the tripartite regime it operates with the Bank of England and the Treasury.

Transfer more authority and power to the Bank of England to help ensure financial stability.

Create a consumer protection agency bringing together the consumer powers currently split between the FSA and the Office of Fair Trading.

The riskiest investment banking activities, such as large-scale proprietary trading (ie trading with the banks' own money), should not sit within retail banks. But any structural solution must be enforced internationally.

An international insurance levy on banks to help bail out troubled institutions.

Commissioning a competition review to inject more competition into the banking industry and review strategy on government stakes in banks.

No opposition to Chancellor Alistair Darling's one-year super-tax on banking bonuses.

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