Three speeches this week - two by Andrew Bailey and one by Mark Carney - neatly demonstrate the efforts regulators go to in constructing a coherent narrative from what are often a series of separate but overlapping initiatives, each with its own back story.
At the bottom of this is a natural wish to impose order and a progressive direction on a world that is far more event-driven and much less controllable than regulators want to believe. As we approach what will be a year obsessed with Brexit, each speech is, in part, an attempt to keep important plates spinning.
Regulators have a wide spectrum of tools but they tend to focus on a narrower range. At one end is the speech, which in this context could be characterised as "fast acting, low resource, high short term impact". At the other is the policy initiative/market study - "slow acting, escalating resource, large (but less certain) long term impact".
Each has pros and cons but, in this context, they substitute for other courses of action, often replacing other regulatory tools that would require more short term resource - typically supervision and enforcement. With this in mind, it's worth a quick look at each speech to pick out a few things firms can learn about the regulators' strategies over the next year or so.
1. Andrew Bailey on consumer credit (27 Feb): The drivers of the FCA approach to this sector are revealed, almost as throwaways, in two statements that bookend it. At the start we learn that "the fall in the real cost of debt has supported the rise in household borrowing"; at the end that the consumer credit agenda "is a lot bigger than the one the FCA saw in 2014".
In between is quite a wide and varied tour, not always consistent in message. This includes sections about the research the FCA is doing, some modest changes to the rules on credit cards and more warnings about high cost credit. Overall, we can draw two conclusions:
- that the FCA wants to do more in this sector than it yet has the budget, evidence or resources to support; and that
- until this changes, the FCA will be cautious and fairly general in its statements and policy initiatives - see the wording around affordability - but harder edged in its supervision and enforcement where it finds clear failures.
2. Andrew Bailey on financial markets (1 Mar): This focuses mainly in the recent introduction of MiFiD II and the ongoing work on LIBOR, and the striking thing about both is how long they have been in gestation.
MiFiD II has been on its way since MiFID I came into effect way back in 2004. The world has changed a lot since then, and even since it was given renewed purpose post crisis. And it is almost 10yrs since the LIBOR scandal started to break.
So a key challenge for both these reforms, as well as whether they fix the problems of the past, will be the extent to which they are still relevant. Again, caution is the watchword, and while some commentary has fretted over how much early supervision and enforcement of MiFiD the FCA will do, in practice it seems unlikely the regulator will do much more this year than gather knowledge of how the reforms are working in practice.
3. Mark Carney on Bitcoin (2 Mar): Most of the commentary seems to see this as an attack on Bitcoin. In fact, it's a careful argument to regulate Bitcoin, and other crypto currencies, combined with a subtext about the importance of the Bank of England in a post Brexit world.
Part of the speech provides the historical context regulators frequently go to when presenting sensitive arguments - see Andrew Bailey's speech last year on Brexit and the Corn Laws. Though interestingly, in a speech whose timeline goes back to 1694, many of the institutions cited as underpinning the UK's currency (from RTGS to the FPC) were put in place the last c.25yrs.
All this frames the argument that Bitcoin currently poses a range of threats - from volatility to financial crime - that can best be met by proportionate regulation. Among other benefits, it argues this would allow the underlying blockchain (DLT) technology to be utilised effectively (post Brexit) for wider public value.
The other lens worth using to examine these three speeches is to see them as different expressions of the structure-driven tension within both regulators between policy development and supervision. The former designs the regime and sets standards then hands it all over to the supervisors.
For Bitcoin this handover is still some way away (so the tension is muted), for MiFiD and LIBOR it's happening now, while for consumer credit it began 4yrs back but is still far from complete.
Probably the largest thing that has happened to the FCA in the first 5 years of its life is taking on the regulation of consumer credit, which it did in 2014, around the time of its first birthday. This added around 34,000 firms to the FCA’s total, taking it from around 24,000 to around 57,000.