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.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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