Examination of Witness

Financial Services and Markets Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 19 October 2022.

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Sir Jon Cunliffe gave evidence.

Photo of Virendra Sharma Virendra Sharma Labour, Ealing, Southall 2:01, 19 October 2022

We are now sitting in public and the proceedings are being broadcast. We will now hear oral evidence from Sir Jon Cunliffe, deputy governor of the Bank of England. For this panel, we have until 2.25 pm. Could the witness please introduce themselves for the record?

Sir Jon Cunliffe:

I am Jon Cunliffe. I am the deputy governor for financial stability at the Bank of England.

Photo of Andrew Griffith Andrew Griffith The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

Q76 Thank you, Sir Jon, for giving us your time today and for the work you and your team have done on the financial stability side for the past fortnight. I am sure it is very much appreciated on both sides of the House. Sir Jon, in your role you have an understandable natural bias towards the prudential side. Notwithstanding that, we heard this morning, particularly from all the industry participants, that they perceive there to be a real problem with international competitiveness, both in terms of the rulebook and its lack of agility, but also sometimes with the application of that. There are two axes: the rulebook itself and the way in which that is applied by regulators.

I do not reach a conclusion on those matters myself, but I thought it would be helpful if we could start with your evaluation of the United Kingdom’s competitiveness in financial regulation, which is one of the core purposes of the Bill, and how well you think the Bill achieves that objective of improving our competitiveness. The other thing a number of our previous witnesses talked about was which markets in the world they consider to be our competitor set.

Sir Jon Cunliffe:

I thank the Committee for allowing us to give some evidence on the Bill. This matters hugely to us. I will say at the outset—this goes to your questions, Financial Secretary—that the Bill is hugely important and it is hugely important for a number of reasons. This is relevant to the competitiveness question. The system we have at the moment is basically that we have onshored the European Union system. That system—I worked in it for many years in different jobs and have been involved in much of the legislation—is designed for, now, 27 member states. It needs to ensure the single market and, although the national competent authorities do the supervision, there is always concern in the single market that you will get differences among them. A huge amount of what in other jurisdictions’ best practice is done in regulators’ rules is hardwired in primary law, and you can see that if you look at the onshored law. That system is justified by the needs of the single market and the need to bring all these jurisdictions together. As a single jurisdiction, as the UK is now, we will have much more flexibility, and the ability to act nimbly and design regulation for our particular needs, than we had in the European Union.

I can give you some examples of that. For example, my colleague Sam Woods at the PRA has put forward ideas for a strong and simple prudential regulation framework for banking. We could not do that under the European Union because we were all locked in a maximum harmonisation phase. In the parts of the Bill that are more relevant to me, around payment systems, there is a schedule that deals with digital settlement assets, more generally known as stablecoins, where we can now develop a regulatory framework that is nimble and flexible on the financial market infrastructure side, where we will see huge technological changes brought about by some of the technology we now see around encryption and tokenisation. Again, we are developing a sandbox with the FCA and the Treasury, but we can bring those much more nimbly into rule. This is a much more flexible and adaptable system, which will help in competitiveness.

It will also help because many of the requirements and the processes in the legislation we have were designed for 27 or 28 countries, and not for one. We report on things—I was there when they were put into the legislation—that were important to other countries but not to us, so there is an on-cost in process. Things that are important to us are not always fully reflected, because all European legislation is a compromise. That flexibility and nimbleness will take time, because the European acquis is very large, but it is a huge advantage for us in designing the regulatory framework that we need.

But—and that is a very important “but”. I might not agree with all the people that have given evidence, and I know the Financial Secretary would probably not expect me to either, but this needs to be underpinned by a strong, credible, regulatory system, and the independence of regulators is a key part of that. It is best international practice, but I think it is particularly important for the UK in two respects.

You can measure our financial system in different ways. The last IMF measure was £23 trillion—that is about 10 times GDP. When that system goes wrong, the cost to the nation is huge. That is not theoretical; we saw that in the financial crisis over 10 years ago. The recovery from the financial crisis, in terms of growth, was slower than our recovery from the great depression in the 1920s. The objective of sustainable growth in the medium and long term is entirely right, but strong, credible regulation is a necessity for sustainable medium and long-term growth. In the short term, there might be trade-offs, but in the long term, we can see what happens to growth if you get a financial sector of the size of ours wrong.

I might touch on the question of a call-in power, because I know you asked my colleague, Vicky Saporta, about that this morning. We have seen the power or the proposed amendment the Government intend to bring forward. Of course, we are subject to Parliament and the framework that Parliament sets for us, and we will work within that framework. However, for the two reasons I gave, I think a power to call in and rewrite veto rules that the regulator had made would, frankly, give us—me, anyway—serious concern given the history I have seen over 30 years in the UK financial sector.

Actually, it goes to competitiveness. We are—I gave you my £23 trillion number—probably the largest international financial centre in the world and we are one of the largest exporters of financial services. Regulators and regulatory authorities of other jurisdictions need assurance and need to be comfortable; they need assurance that they will not import risk from the UK or by their firms using UK financial services. That credibility of the institutional framework is very important to the competitiveness of London as a financial centre.

Of course, it is also important to the firms that locate here. They want to ensure that if they use our infrastructure—I am responsible for clearing houses and settlement systems—and if their banks locate here or trade with our banks cross-border on financial services, then they can be assured of the robustness of the underlying system.

I beg your indulgence, Mr Sharma, as I have one last point. All of that—the nimbleness, flexibility and, on the other side, robustness of the framework—needs to be fully, publicly accountable and accountable to Parliament. We welcome what is in the Bill in this area.

To the question of where our competitors are, I think the US is a large competitor in wholesale financial services. We have competitors in Asia as well, but that is more niche. A lot of particular products, asset management and the like, are located in Ireland and Luxembourg and are used by the UK.

Financial services are not linear. A service will very often be a bundling of products that come from different jurisdictions. That is very important for competition. People need to be assured that they will not import risks by dealing with the UK, and that when financial services are put together with elements from different jurisdictions or when we are competing, we actually are in line with international standards.

Photo of Andrew Griffith Andrew Griffith The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

I thank the deputy governor for his comprehensive comments.

Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Shadow Minister (Treasury)

Thank you for coming to give evidence, Sir Jon. I wanted to ask a question about the intervention power, which you mentioned. We have seen in recent weeks the danger of Government signalling to markets that they are prepared to undermine or sideline national institutions. Is there a worry that, if intervention powers are brought in, the markets might think this indicates an undermining of the independence of the Bank of EnglandQ ?

Sir Jon Cunliffe:

I have not seen the proposed amendment. I have only seen the Financial Secretary’s comments to the Treasury Committee and comments from the previous Economic Secretary at the Treasury, so I would need to look to see. I would say that the Bill as drafted gives the regulator primary and secondary objectives to make the difficult decisions that some of the witnesses this morning were complaining about. It requires us to balance different things before we come to a decision, but underlying that is the primary objective of financial stability and the safety of the system.

I do not know how often a call-in power or an intervention power would be used, and I do not know what frameworks would be around it. Of course, one cannot always assume that the intention when introduced is actually what happens five or 10 years down the line with different Governments. It is something that gives Ministers the ability to take a second judgment on the judgment the regulator has made in line with everything in the “have regards”—the secondary objective—so it would, yes, affect the perception of the independence of the regulatory part of the Bank of England.

Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Shadow Minister (Treasury)

Q Andrew Bailey wrote a letter to the Treasury Committee in July, which I am sure you are aware of. It stated:

“Anything that would weaken the independence of regulators would undermine the aims of the reforms” implemented by the Bill. Do you think he was referring to the proposed intervention powers?

Sir Jon Cunliffe:

There has been a lot of discussion. There was discussion in the consultation about a number of aspects that might affect either the independence or balance of the regulators. I know there was a discussion on the competitiveness objective, and we think it has been drafted in a very sensible way. That came up in the consultation. At that point there was also talk of an intervention power, so it would apply to that as well, I guess.

Photo of Craig Tracey Craig Tracey Conservative, North Warwickshire

You mentioned credible regulation before, and I do not think anyone would argue with that. There seems to be a need to have proportionate regulation as well. The FCA confirmed in its evidence that it saw the Singapore regulation as robust, which was good to hear because, on things like insurance-linked securities, they took our regulation, but, because they have this competitiveness duty, there have been 18 new firms set up in Singapore as opposed to five here. That is about $700 million-worth of business. It seems to suggest that the competitiveness duty needs to exist. Do you accept that there are areas where we could do better and we could be more proportionate in how we regulate, particularly where we deal with more sophisticated customersQ ?

Sir Jon Cunliffe:

I should say at the outset that our responsibility is the prudential regulation. The FCA deals with a different market. On the prudential and infrastructure side that I deal with, there is not a huge amount of commerce with Singapore. Would I accept that the competitiveness of our financial sector relative to Singapore’s in the areas that I deal with has been damaged? No, I do not think I would. I do not know of any examples. I think the firms that you quoted were in the FCA area. The competitiveness of the financial system depends on many things. It depends on our openness to migration. One thing you hear most from international banks and the like is the overriding importance of getting the best talent. That is a huge advantage for the UK, which has been called into a little doubt recently, but I think is now being re-established.

The taxation regime plays a role, and then there are lots of things about the attractiveness of the location for people to live in. On making a comparison between two financial centres on how many firms have started one and how many firms have started another, and assuming that all of that is to do with the way regulation is designed, I would be careful about making comparisons on that basis. There is a lot more in it.

I will bring it back to my area if it helps. When I look at the technological changes that are coming, and when I look at the European Union, which is where we were, and look at areas where I know we have not had the flexibility to design the regulation that we would have wanted to design—there are pros and cons to being in the European Union, and we can argue about those—you have to be within a single market where the rules are pretty much set for everybody. On the rulebook as we have it now and instances where people have said, “We don’t like that part of the rulebook. We will set up somewhere else”, I do not have any instances where that has happened, but it probably has.

As these powers, which are now coming back to the UK and I think rightly coming into the regulator’s rules, are exercised, where does the regulator put the balance? What is the scrutiny of the regulator? Is there accountability? In the end, those decisions, if I can encapsulate it, lie in the way the Bill has been set up with the primary and secondary “have regards”, and those arrangements should ensure that we are competitive in future.

Photo of Craig Tracey Craig Tracey Conservative, North Warwickshire

Q On the technological side of it and the flexibility, do you think there will be a culture shift as a result of the Bill to try and encourage the regulators to be more nimble and flexible?

Sir Jon Cunliffe:

With the greatest of respect, I do not think I need my culture shifting, within the regulatory framework that we have at the moment. I have made a series of speeches on new technology and the benefits that new technology can bring and the importance of that, so I would not regard myself as in that position. Others might have a different view and are obviously entitled to it, but I certainly would not accept that, if I can make that point clear. You can look at the published statements of the Bank of England and the speeches we have made.

We welcome schedule 6 of the Bill because it will give us the powers to put in place a regulatory framework for stablecoin and digital assets used as payments. I would argue, because I hear this from lots of the fintech community in London, that they want a regulatory framework. They do not want a system where the public think, “This is unsafe. What happened to Terra and LUNA could happen to me. I could be scammed. I am betting in an unfair casino.” They actually want a regulatory system. They want it to be designed to recognise their technology.

There will always be tension between where we put the risk cursor and where the private sector would like it to be put. That is a discussion we have to have. The importance of this Bill is that it will give us the powers to get on and do it. I do not think I would accept the criticism that our culture is anti-innovation and inflexible. We need the powers and the tools to do that job and that this Bill will give us them.

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Industries of the Future and Blockchain Technologies), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (PPS to the Westminster Leader)

It is good to see you, deputy governor. In June this year, at the annual lecture of the Bank for International Q Settlements, the former Governor of the Bank of England —who I believe is your former boss—said in relation to stablecoin, the adoption of cryptocurrency and the concerns about systemic crises:

“In baseball, it’s three strikes and you’re out. In cricket, it’s only the equivalent of one. For systemic payment systems, one is too many. If that means, as it must, very rigorous oversight and rules for private stablecoins, what would then differentiate them from CBDCs?”

First, could you answer the former Governor’s question—what then does differentiate them from a central bank’s digital currency? Secondly, I am glad to hear you rightly say that the industry wants good regulation; is this regulation rigorous enough to enable that to happen?

Sir Jon Cunliffe:

I do not normally contradict my ex-colleague and boss, Mark Carney, but I would say a number of things. On the landscape, let us be clear about what we are talking about: we are not just talking about new forms of payment systems; we are talking about new forms of money. Most of us do not realise it, but when we use our credit card, phone or cheques—if we use cheques—we are exchanging private money, which is our deposits at commercial banks. What these stablecoin proponents propose to do is create a new settlement asset—that is, a new form of money—to be used in transactions. I think that is why Mark said that when a payment system—the money going through it and the mechanism for transferring it—breaks down, then one of the basically essential services in the economy, like water or electricity, breaks down and transactions cannot happen. So you do not get one strike: if the payment system goes down, people cannot transact at scale. This is fundamental infrastructure, if I can put it that way.

The money that travels through these payment systems is also fundamental to society. It needs to be robust and safe, and history has lots of examples of what happens when people lose confidence in the safety of the money they are holding and transacting. That is why these things are crucially important. However, 95% of the money that we use in our economy is not public money from the Bank of England but private money from commercial banks, and I do not see, a priori, a reason why a new form of private money could not emerge using different technology in the way that stablecoins have proposed. What I will say, and the financial policy committee at the Bank has said this very clearly, is that the money that they use and the transaction machinery that they use must be as robust as the money we are using from commercial banks or the Bank of England. The public should not need to think, “Which money am I using?” It should all be one money of equivalent value.

I think there is a world in which you have a CBDC, stablecoins, commercial bank money and Bank of England cash, which we will produce as long as anybody wants it, and those things are interchangeable and people use them interchangeably—we use the moneys of different banks interchangeably now—but the regulatory system has to be strong and make it very clear that if what you are offering is a better service, an innovation, that is fine, but if it works because it operates to a lower standard, that is not fine.

Sir Jon Cunliffe:

No, no, it is fine. We are friends.

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Industries of the Future and Blockchain Technologies), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (PPS to the Westminster Leader)

He did say this, which I take in terms of stablecoin as well:

“Ultimately, crypto either has such extrinsic value without a use case, or has a use case as an NFT that perfects ownership (which is niche by definition in that it is non-fungible).”

His critique is that it becomes niche.

Photo of Virendra Sharma Virendra Sharma Labour, Ealing, Southall

Order. I am afraid that brings us to the end of the time allocated for the Committee to ask questions of this witness. On behalf of the Committee, I thank our witness.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle

Could Q the deputy governor write to the Committee with an answer to that question?

Sir Jon Cunliffe:

I would be very happy to write something on—

Sir Jon Cunliffe:

We will bring out a regulatory framework for stablecoin, but I am very happy to write on how we see it, if that helps.