OPINION: FSA hardest hit by Northern Rock

Last autumn, as the Northern Rock crisis unfolded, the reputations of the Financial Services Authority (FSA) and the Bank of England were both similarly trashed.

Anthony Hilton
Anthony Hilton

Neither was seen to have responded to the problem adeptly and they made matters worse by each using off-the-record briefings and unofficial comments to blame the other.

Since then things have improved but by no means equally. The Bank of England and its governor Mervyn King have broadly speaking successfully patched up their reputations, although neither is yet back to the pre-crisis level. In contrast the FSA, though it has probably worked harder to rebuild its image, has had less success.

There are several reasons for this. First the FSA was the frontline regulator and therefore it has further to climb back. It is also probably fair to say it was less well regarded than the Bank to start with.

But it has tried to do the right things, in particular by being ruthless in its self-examination and open in its admission of mistakes.

Indeed, seldom, if ever, has a public body been so openly willing to accept the blame as the FSA was in first instituting a major inquiry to establish its shortcomings and then publishing the results so that all the bad news was out on the table.

Chief executive Hector Sants has also been ruthless in his culling of those responsible. There have been no ostentatious public announcements but at least half of the top echelon of management within the FSA has gone.

Third, there has been a succession of articles in the financial press designed to emphasise other aspects of the FSA's work. The people in charge of the insider dealing regime, insurance and elsewhere have been brought out of the shadows to emphasise that the organisation should not be tainted by Northern Rock.

The Government is seeking to increase the role of the bank and diminish the role of the FSA. Assuming it does not modify its position in the face of vigorous FSA lobbying, the regulator's loss of image and reputation will have had real policy consequences.

Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London's Evening Standard

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