James ConeyJan 8 2020

The FCA: A poisoned chalice

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Andrew Bailey is a good man. Over the years I have met him a few times and he has always been open and personable. People I respect, who know him far better than I, like him and call him honourable.

The Lloyds Bank and London Capital & Finance victims who recently protested outside the Financial Conduct Authority headquarters say they were flabbergasted that he stood beside them and held a candle in respect of those that had died during the scandal. This humanity was not viewed as weakness, but as strength.

I think he may prove to be an excellent Bank of England governor – it did not surprise me at all when he pipped the rest of the field to the post.

I knew his predecessor, FCA chief executive Martin Wheatley, much better.

Andrew Bailey may prove to be an excellent Bank of England governor

We got off on the wrong foot when we first met as I was sceptical as to what a man whose career was carved out in regulation in Asia could possibly know about protecting housewives in Scarborough.

But I ended up considering him a man of integrity who always tried to be honest and who refused to be cowed by the big businesses he regulated.

Now, I am either a terrible judge of character or these men are not the villains that they have routinely been painted.

So since both men have been branded failures for running the FCA is there not another possibility, that perhaps the role of running the watchdog is an impossible challenge – one that is always doomed?

For Mr Bailey, his undoing is considered to be the scandals involving LC&F and Neil Woodford.

LC&F is not just the failure of regulation for one company, but of the wider issue of how we regulate the internet and the sales of financial products there.

Trying to wrestle with Google, Instagram and Snapchat, where some toxic products are advertised, has been as much a challenge to the FCA as to all other areas of society in holding these tech giants accountable.

With Mr Woodford, it is important to remember that no laws, no actual rules, seem to have been broken – at least none the FCA did not know about and could not act on quickly.

What was Mr Bailey supposed to do? Force Mr Woodford to buy different stocks? That would have been a very dangerous signal to the rest of the fund management world.

No. Running the FCA is an impossible job, where you are caught between fierce consumer demands, an industry that spends millions trying to fight restrictions, and a Treasury that shackles your powers.

The new heads of the central bank and the FCA are two of the most fundamental changes in our financial landscape this year.

Maybe it is time we accept that no one will ever come away from running the regulator well. Good luck to the next person at the helm.

Carney’s swansong

As Mark Carney began ducking for the finish line as governor, he ramped up his rhetoric over climate change.

“A question for every company, every financial institution, every asset manager, pension fund or insurer should be: what’s your plan?”, he told the Today programme when it was edited by Greta Thunberg. To be fair to Mr Carney, this is not the first time he has offered these thoughts, but he is trying to make it his swansong.

The problem is that while environmental, social and governance investing is clearly growing in popularity, trying to help investors make sensible decisions about it is nigh on impossible.

ESG investing is unclear, and the targets companies use to monitor their ESG requirements are a hotch-potch that few understand. It allows many firms to greenwash their credentials while really doing nothing.

I met a property fund manager the other day who bemoaned this situation. His company tries to set high standards for the buildings it owns, but finds that previous owners have fibbed their way to energy-saving achievements that do not exist. Mr Carney has had plenty of time to deal with this, and he has done nothing.

If he wants a legacy, he should have fought for tougher legislation to require British companies to have the highest standards in Europe.

A taxing time of year

Christmas and New Year is one of those rare periods of time where you find yourself at home.

So what do I do? Check and file my tax return, sort out my current accounts and savings, tidy up some other financial affairs, and have a closer look at my investments. It has almost become a seasonal tradition.

I can well understand how 245 people end up filing their tax return at noon on Christmas Day: there is nothing else to do, so why not take that moment to do the one chore that has been hanging over you for weeks on end?

Better that than to leave it to the very last minute.

James Coney is money editor of The Times and The Sunday Times