Robinson Hambro
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Karina's Column

An insider’s view on the City of London and beyond

Time to call a halt to regulatory overkill

…and why even Archbishop Welby agrees

None can disagree with the need for a regulatory transformation of the banking sector following the 2008 financial crisis. Yet after seven years the blitzkrieg of rules continues amidst a confusion of overlapping and contradictory requirements. It beggars belief that the rules on too big to fail were only agreed in principle in November last year by the G20, while the details have yet to be made final.

Speaking to bank CEOs and Chairs in the UK and Europe, who dare not complain publicly, the regulatory fatigue that Bank of England Governor Mark Carney spoke of is apparent, as are a number of the unintended, negative consequences.

Capital has become local as global banks withdraw to their home markets. Surpluses of capital are not being used, while demand lies unfilled. When you add in Anti Money Laundering and Counter Terrorism requirements, even long-standing, legitimate businesses in Africa are having their bank accounts closed down. Let alone HSBC’s strategically absurd decision to exit Brazil, still responsible for approximately 60% of South America’s GDP, and to do so at the worst time possible time, when the country is in the doldrums.

Secondly, loan capital has diminished substantially. The creation of credit is a problem. And which sector or instrument that credit goes to is determined by regulatory requirements rather than business sense. This can itself lead to a new crisis.

Competition has contracted, with banks either going bust or being absorbed by others, while regulatory requirements have increased the barriers to entry. As the latest results from the big US banks testify, only the large can absorb regulatory burdens and fines. JP Morgan has moved from being a big financial institution pre-2008 to bestriding the world like a colossus. There are some so-called challenger banks – new entrants unencumbered with the legacy of old systems and debts – while internet-only loan providers are growing at a dizzying pace, but it will take a very long time for them to fill the gap, if they manage to do so.

Fourthly, the myth that Brussels is responsible for myriad new rules is helping push the UK out of the EU. In fact, with regulatory equivalence, the UK would not escape more regulation even if it did leave the EU.

Lastly, even as banks cut down on front line staff, there is a vast increase in their recruitment of compliance specialists, as well as the information technology personnel needed to change systems to comply with new rules. Regulators are asking for the traceability of all credit decisions, even the smallest, all of which consumes management time. Top bank executives complain that they spend hours in meetings with junior, inexperienced supervisors who have never worked in banks and are more intent on protecting themselves from criticism by painfully ticking every box.

Complexity is not progress.

At board level the situation is no better. Bank board meetings are about the modelling of risk, rarely about strategy or how to grow the business, according to board members. One FTSE-100 financial services institution conducted 29,000 different simulations. The Non-Executive Director in charge of the Risk Committee was dismissive of the exercise. Meanwhile, potential NEDs with insight and experience say that you would have to be “reckless” to jeopardise a 30-year career by taking up an appointment on a bank board – even more so if criminal liability is extended to independent directors, as has been proposed in the UK.

The Bank for International Settlements, the so-called central banks’ bank, recently said the wave of regulation is coming to an end. Bankers disagree.

Seven years after the financial crisis, regulation needs to focus on being an enabler of financial services rather than an obstructer. To change the mind-set of the regulators – and the bankers – a system of secondment needs to be set up. Modelled on the very successful Takeover Panel, which has been ruling on mergers and acquisitions in the UK since 1968, bankers would be seconded to regulators for a pre-agreed period, with their salaries paid for by the banks. This is idea has been mooted before in the Salz Review of what went wrong at Barclays Bank, but sunk without trace.

On the macro front, the focus should shift to stimulating the capital markets so that the provision of credit does not lie mainly on bank balance sheets, as it does in Europe, while capital requirements should be lowered and the focus should shift to the leverage ratio.

Speaking to the Worshipful Company of International Bankers a couple of months ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby said: “2008 continues to lurk around as an impediment, which undermines confidence. Creativity and confidence go hand in hand…Creative leadership that does more than manage is essential.”

It is time to move on.

This column is based on private conversations with bank CEOS, Chairs and board members in Europe, as well as knowledge gained in my prior career as Senior Editor of The Banker and a former banking columnist for the International Herald Tribune.

It will be published in the next issue of Dialogue Review.