Financial Services Bill — Second Reading (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:02 pm on 11th June 2012.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Desai Lord Desai Labour 8:02 pm, 11th June 2012

My Lords, this has been an excellent debate, especially the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord O'Donnell. I am reminded of a debate we had when we considered the Financial Services and Markets Bill. At the time we were sure that the self-regulation of various bodies in the City had failed-the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Wirral, mentioned self-regulation-and that we needed cross-border co-ordination and an overarching authority. We thought we had that in the Financial Services Authority, because at the time the problem lay in the interconnections between different parts of the financial sector that were not well understood. I recall that we were proud of a special provision in the Bill to ensure that the chairman and chief executive of the authority would be the same person. Sir Howard Davies was chosen. We thought that the centralisation of authority in one person was key to the success of the authority.

We have moved on, and now we have the Financial Services Bill "Act Two". I have absolutely no practical experience of anything, but I want to emphasise that these Bills are always based on an underlying concept. The conceptual basis of the FSA proved to be wrong. It was not just that it was based on light-touch regulation-we all believed in that-but that the kind of world we thought we were regulating was no longer the world that was out there. My main worry is whether, when these bodies have been set up, they will be able to deal with the problems they have to face. I shall take a line from my noble friend Lord McFall, who said that risk is a black box. Our main problem recently in the cases of MF Global, JPMorgan Chase and others has been that the people who are professional workers in the field can no longer grasp the kind of risk they are undertaking.

What is also happening in the literature is that what was once the standard, basic concept, that of a financial analysis of value and risk, is now in doubt in that people wonder whether it is a robust enough concept to guide them through operations in the financial market. As it turned out in the case of JPMorgan Chase, the product it was engaged in putting money into was so complex that the top management, which is among the best management there is, did not actually understand the nature of the risk that its people were taking. Surprisingly, however, when the so-called London Whale was taking a position in the sovereign debt euro market, someone called the New York Monster sitting in New York knew precisely what was going on and spotted the anomaly in the big bet that JPMorgan Chase was taking. He decided that the bet had to fail. He took a counterposition and cleaned up. The market worked, but the institution has completely failed because the people in charge did not understand the nature of the risks that some of their subordinates were taking.

That is exactly the story of Barings Bank. When it failed, it was because the top management at the bank did not understand why they were making so much money in the Far East. They were making money in the Far East because a man called Nick Leeson was taking unhedged bets on the yen. Those bets were publicly known to anyone who looked at what was happening in the Yokohama market. I remember discussing it here at the time. Not only did the top management at Barings not understand what had happened, the top men in the Bank of England did not understand it either. A report was later produced which we debated in your Lordships' House. These regulatory people face a problem: can they keep up with the nature of the reality, which is very fast-changing, complex and mathematical, so much so that even those operating in the field do not understand it? It is almost like playing rugby without knowing the rules, and even then the rules keep on changing while you are trying to play.

There has been some coverage in the Financial Times of the failure of MF Global. It was run by Jon Corzine, a very accomplished man who had been with Goldman Sachs. When that large fund failed-the investigations are still going on-what clearly emerged was the fact that the firm had not set up sufficient internal supervisory and regulatory procedures in order to understand what it was doing. It is the long-term capital management story all over again. The company had taken a position believing that if differences in interest rates are very wide, they will converge. It is one of the basic propositions of Economics 101, except when it does not work. It does not work when things do not come together: when, in fact, they diverge. That is what happened in 2008 and it has happened again and again. Somewhere in the intestines of the FPC or whatever it is, I suggest that there ought to be a research capability that can tell those who are regulating how the reality is continuously changing.

A piece by Gillian Tett in the FT last Friday mentioned an article by someone who worked for the SEC, which said that the thing is now so complex that although there is a reporting requirement on firms operating in the financial market in the United States, the firms themselves cannot describe what they are doing to the satisfaction of the SEC because they do not understand the nature of some of the things they are doing. One of the propositions in this article was that it is no longer that the firms are too big to fail; it is too complex to describe and depict what the firms are doing. This comes out of the fact that the people who do these things are in their 20s and 30s and the people who rule over them are in their 50s and 60s and have absolutely no clue what is going on. That problem will have to be dealt with at some stage. I do not know whether the Court of the Bank of England-of which one hears very little normally; it does not do anything at all, and is made up of the great and the good-is a functional part of the organisation. Someone said that it was the decorous part of the structure.

The FPC will need seriously competent people who are able not only to understand how the market works but to keep up with the rate at which the market is changing. This is hard work. I once suggested in your Lordships' House-I will do it again-that it would be a very good idea periodically to examine people at the top of banks and financial institutions to see whether they understand the changing nature of the market they are in. We really have to license them and have an examination every three years; if you cannot pass the exam you are not competent to be at the top of a bank. This is exactly what happened at Barings. I do not make this suggestion facetiously; I think it would be a very important thing to do.

If we have a world in which the products are so complex that the management of the company does not understand the nature of the business, it is time to think about breaking companies up or doing something so that they are a biteable, good size and people can grasp what they are up to. This would relate to the nature of the competition, and to the banking Bill that we are going to get in the future. Banks themselves have become very complex because they combine not just retail but investment banking and other things. Banks have failed because they were too complex. One of the tasks of the FPC should be to keep on doing research at a sufficiently high level so that it understands the complexity. The noble Lord, Lord O'Donnell, mentioned a joint parliamentary committee to which the FPC, the PRA and the FCA would all answer. We need political oversight so that these bodies are accountable.

Finally, I cannot see how the FPC and the MPC can be two separate bodies with no communication between them. Someone has already mentioned that if the interest rate is the instrument with which you control inflation and things like that, it is also a very important instrument for financial stability. If you are going to do things like that, you have to be careful. It is a fallacy to think that macro and microprudential conduct are separate things. There are large micro units and their misbehaviour can have serious macro implications. That is another overlap between the FPC and the PRA that we ought to look at very carefully and not build Chinese walls that will be big obstacles to serious regulation.