Yes, I am comparing the FCA to a reptilian monster

Problems regrow with the new financial services regulator.

Monday’s handover of responsibility for UK financial services regulation from the FSA to the new Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and the Prudential Regulatory Authority (PRA) had a touch of Hercules’ second labour about it.

For the less classically inclined among you, that’s the one where Hercules lops the head off the Lernaean Hydra, only to find two heads growing back from the stump. And while I don’t intend to be malicious in comparing our new regulators to an aggressive reptilian monster, the multiple heads part at least is quite apt.

Because as well as the obvious duality of the new status quo – the PRA will supervise lenders as an arm of the Bank of England while independent agency the FCA will concentrate on ensuring good behaviour among the same pool of companies – there’s also a serious split in priorities for the new bodies.

Commenting on this week’s changing of the guard in finance, the FT’s Brooke Masters called the sector that the FCA and PRA were opening their doors to “reviled and weary” – two well chosen words.

Reviled because, as was pointed out in a report by KPMG last week. reputational issues and the restoration of consumer trust are set to be the biggest challenges faced by lenders in the months and years to come. After all, it was disappointment over the old FSA’s failure to avert the boom and bust of the late 2000s that led to George Osborne announcing the new regime back in 2010.

Weary because, having experienced a more severe drubbing in 2008 than most of the world’s financial centres, and with a UK economy still barely hovering beyond the grip of recession, financial institutions of all kinds are desperate for room to grow.

On the one hand, the new regulators have consumers (and those who rely on their votes) expecting a bloody-knuckled champion, and banks begging for a pair of watchdogs that won’t drown them in twin torrents of red tape.

The situation is summarised nicely on the FCA’s home page, where a photograph of a woman on a British high street, captioned “Making sure consumers get a fair deal” sits alongside an image of a confident-looking businessman, captioned “Making markets work well”. The consumer and the businessman are facing in different directions.  

Photograph: Getty Images

By day, Fred Crawley is editor of Credit Today and Insolvency Today. By night, he reviews graphic novels for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.