Wed, Feb 27, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Financial regulators’ global variety show fails to solve problems

By Howard Davies

In the early phases of the financial crisis, it was fashionable to argue that the US’ system of regulation needed a fundamental structural overhaul. Differences of opinion between the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) had obstructed effective oversight of investment banks and derivatives trading (only the US believes that it makes sense to regulate securities and derivatives separately).

Indeed, the plethora of separate banking regulators had created opportunities for banks to arbitrage the system in search of a more indulgent approach to capital.

Likewise, the lack of a federal insurance regulator had left AIG regulated by the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS) and the New York State Insurance Department, which proved to be a wholly inadequate arrangement.

Little has come of these arguments. The Dodd-Frank Act did succeed in putting the OTS out of its misery, but jealous congressional oversight committees have prevented a merger of the SEC and CFTC, and nothing has been done to rationalize banking supervision. So the US system looks remarkably similar to the one that turned a collective blind eye to the rise of fatal tensions in the early 2000s.

One factor that contributed to institutional stasis was the absence of a persuasive alternative. In the decade or so leading up to the meltdown of 2007-2008, the global trend was toward regulatory integration. Almost 40 countries had introduced single regulators, merging all types of oversight into a single all-powerful entity. The movement began in Scandinavia in the early 1990s, but the most dramatic change came in 1997, when the UK introduced its Financial Services Authority (I was its first chairman).

Other countries adopted slightly different models. A fashionable approach was known as “twin peaks,” whereby one regulator handled prudential regulation — setting capital requirements — while another oversaw adherence to business rules. However, twin peaks itself was further subdivided.

The Dutch model brigaded the prudential regulators inside the central bank, while the Australian version was built on a separate institution. These integrated structures seemed to offer many advantages. There were economies of scale and scope, and financial firms typically like the idea of a one-stop (or, at worst, a two-stop) shop. A single regulator might also be expected to develop a more coherent view of trends in the financial sector as a whole.

Unfortunately, these benefits did not materialize, or at least not everywhere. It is hard to argue that the British system performed any more effectively than the American, so the single-regulator movement has suffered reputational damage. And the continuing travails of the Dutch banking system — another bank was nationalized last month — suggest that it is easy to fall into the gap between twin peaks.

The truth is that it is hard to identify any correlation between regulatory structure and success in heading off or responding to the financial crisis. Among the single-regulator countries, Singapore and the Scandinavians were successful in dodging most of the fatal bullets, while the UK evidently was not. Among the twin peak exponents, the Dutch system performed very poorly indeed, while Australian financial regulation may be considered a success.

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