Financial Services Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
Baroness Kramer Portrait Baroness Kramer (LD)
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My Lords, in this area I cannot pretend to have the scope of knowledge or the expertise of my noble friend Lady Bowles or the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, but I have a great deal of sympathy with their amendments which comes from long frustration with trying to deal with banking standards. I probably had some small part to play in the focus that the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards applied to looking at IFRS and other banking frameworks. I would defy almost anybody looking at the published accounts of Northern Rock, HBOS or RBS to have identified how fragile those institutions were and how easily they would crack the moment any pressure was applied to the very fragile arrangements they had in place. It is no wonder that it was missed by the regulators if they were looking at the disclosures that came from those institutions. They were not falsified; it is just that working your way through the disclosures very often discloses very little.

I spent a good part of my banking career trying to extract real and consistent information from accounting statements. That was largely in the States, so we were using GAAP, which I think many people will acknowledge tells one a lot more than IRFS ever does, but a bank has the resource to do that kind of deconstruction for a potential or existing credit client. Investment firms have the resources to do that kind of deconstruction, and so do regulators, but for any normal investor, and certainly for any smaller creditor such as a trade creditor, it is impossible to have those resources, as it is for any normal politician, even if in the end we carry the buck, in a sense, for whether or not we have a system that works. Over many years, the only clients who ever handed me a straightforward deconstructed set of accounts were Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, who headed up the GEICO insurance subsidiary. They did it simply because they felt that bankers should know what was going on. That is a good enough recommendation for any company or regulator.

Lord Eatwell Portrait Lord Eatwell (Lab)
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My Lords, I have sympathy with the concerns behind these amendments. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, and my noble friend Lord Sikka have spelled out so clearly, there is an intimate link between accounting standards and effective prudential regulation. It is probably true that nothing has a greater impact on policy than the manner in which relevant variables are measured.

That relationship between accounting standards and prudential regulation has been exposed just this last week with the collapse of Greensill Capital, a supply chain financing firm. Its business model was based on flaws in UK accounting—that was how it worked. As the Financial Times reports:

“While a company that uses supply-chain finance owes money to a financial institution, accountants do not class these facilities as debt. Instead a company typically books the money owed in the ‘trade payable’ or ‘accounts payable’ line of its balance sheet, mingled in with all the other bills owed to suppliers. While a footnote to the accounts might explain how much of this line is made up of money actually owed to financial institutions, rather than suppliers, there is no requirement to disclose it.”

Lack of disclosure means that the supply chain has proved popular with struggling companies looking to mask their mounting borrowings. When nervous lenders remove these facilities from heavily indebted companies, it can create an effect similar to a bank run on their working capital position, whereby that quasi bank run then escalates into risk to the financial services sector. Who really suffers? Typically, it is the SMEs at the origins of the supply chain. Greensill is not an isolated example. Parliamentary investigations into the collapse of the Carillion group, already mentioned, found that it made heavy use of the Government’s supply chain finance programme. MPs investigating the outsourcer’s demise said that the scheme allowed it to “prop up” its failing business model.

This is a major concern in the prudential management of the financial services sector in the UK. If accounting standards and methods do not accurately represent the fragility or strength of an institution, especially a financial institution, they severely compromise our efforts at prudential regulation.

A quite different prudential and market conduct risk created by accounting standards arises from the fact—again already mentioned—that while the UK’s accounting standards apply IFRS, the US maintains its own GAAP different standard. Are the UK Government pursuing negotiations with the US Administration to encourage the adoption of a common standard, perhaps one that accurately represents the risks present in financial institutions?

The issues raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, and the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, require urgent consideration, not just by the accounting profession but by Her Majesty’s Treasury and by the prudential regulators.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, as we have heard, Amendments 74 and 77 concern accounting standards. I have listened carefully to what the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, and other Members of the Committee have said. It is perhaps best to begin by making a key distinction: the objective of accounting numbers is to show a true and fair financial position of a company; the objective of regulatory capital numbers is to provide information to the regulators in meeting their supervisory objectives. These are different numbers used for different purposes.

Amendment 74 proposes a kind of conflation of those purposes by requiring UK banks to align their accounts prepared under international accounting standards with their regulatory capital equivalent where the regulatory capital number is lower. My noble friend Lady Noakes rightly made the point that I have just made: these accounting standards are international. It is in the UK’s interests to maintain convergence with international accounting standards—IFRS—set by the International Financial Reporting Standards Foundation. The IFRS bring consistency to financial statements and allow investors easily to compare the financial statements of companies across the world. It is therefore consistent with the Government’s aim of ensuring that the UK retains its reputation as a global hub for business for the UK to continue to adopt these standards.

The amendment would result in financial statements of UK banks not being prepared in accordance with those international accounting standards. UK banks wishing to maintain listings abroad would however still need to prepare a second set of financial statements. The UK prudential regime for banks is supported by detailed regulatory reporting. It is these reports and other data gathered from firms that are the basis for prudential regulation, and not financial statements and annual reports.

A subset of the information contained in the regulatory reporting is published in the form of what is referred to as Pillar 3 reports. These reports include details of the regulatory capital held by banks. Therefore, while Pillar 3 reports are not identical in form to financial statements prepared for accounting purposes, they already provide a significant amount of the information sought by this amendment.

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Baroness Kramer Portrait Baroness Kramer (LD)
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My Lords, once again, I am moving outside of any area where I can claim expertise. Essentially, I have no problem with short selling in the right place and time and under the right regulations, but I am concerned that, in the current environment, any move to look at the regulations again would listen more closely to the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe, the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, and the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes—in other words, look for opportunities to reduce the restrictions on short selling.

We have had a number of exchanges on short selling in the Chamber. The noble Lord, Lord Leigh of Hurley, is particularly vocal, and I do not think that I represent him unfairly by saying that he believes that the restrictions on short selling that were set in place in 2012, which severely limited naked short selling on AIM, are too onerous and that relaxation would be a good thing. He would argue for bringing more liquidity into AIM. I remember that campaign, which was strong and led by companies that were either listed on AIM or wished to be so but that were concerned about becoming the target of speculators who were not interested in supporting sustainable growth but were very interested in bubbles. Of course, this is a risk that goes alongside naked short selling in particular.

I suspect that this issue will be reviewed; I am sure my noble friend Lady Bowles is right that it should be done in a much wider context—I think the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, agreed with that. But I would not work on the assumption that this comes from a concern that rules need to be tightened and safeguards increased; this will very quickly become a process of trying to see whether we can return to the old animal spirits and largely casino-like speculation that once fired London so powerfully and which many of us think largely contributed to the financial crash in 2007-8. While I understand the concerns of the City of London that it needs to make itself more of an exception in order to gather increasing amounts of business, I am rather disturbed if that mode of exception is to allow a great deal more risk to be taken in ways that then impact on the real economy.

Lord Eatwell Portrait Lord Eatwell (Lab)
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My Lords, this request for a review of short selling is essentially a request to focus on just one of the aspects of the financial markets today that may contribute to enhanced instability in times of stress. It is not just short selling that involves the sale of borrowed assets—this is what the repo market, for example, is all about. The repo market was central to the dangerously short-term funding of the banking sector in the run-up to the financial crisis of 2007-9.

Of course, short selling is prominent because it is a factor in falling markets, when money is being lost, as opposed to similar practices in rising market bubbles, when money is being made. Of course, the short sellers sometimes get their comeuppance, as has been mentioned by several noble Lords in reference to the case of GameStop. The fundamental question is not whether short selling is a process that can be abused—of course it can. What is important is whether the very existence of the practice contributes to market instability and risk or, as has also been argued, to price discovery and greater liquidity.

Those questions may be asked of many practices in our financial markets today, and, at a time when the UK is rethinking its economic and financial future after leaving the European Union, perhaps the time is right for such a wider review of permitted practices. This could begin with consideration of the impact of trading in borrowed assets—as well as, of course, naked transactions—in forward markets.

Since the liberalising years of the 1970s and 1980s, a wide range of these market practices have developed, with potentially serious destabilising consequences—indeed, we have seen these. As such, does the Minister agree with the many noble Lords who have argued that it is time to stand back and think through whether matters have gone too far, are just right or have not gone far enough? Perhaps such a review is too specific for the regulatory framework review that is going on at the moment because, after all, that is about the framework. However, it is necessary to consider, from time to time, practices that will inevitably have downsides but may also have upsides. That sort of consideration should not be delayed at a time when market regulation is changing significantly, with the exit from the European Union.

Baroness Penn Portrait Baroness Penn (Con)
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My Lords, it is important to stress, as a number of noble Lords have done, that short selling is a legitimate investment technique that can contribute to orderly and open markets supporting many consumers. Taking short and long positions can ensure that investors are able to manage risk and volatility in their portfolio, particularly during uncertain times; for example, if a firm has purchased a large number of shares, that firm might want to short some of those shares if they have a volatile price.

As my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering ably set out, the UK’s regulatory regime for short selling is predominantly set out in the short selling regulations, which were introduced in 2012 to regulate short selling practices while safeguarding companies and the financial system. Among other things, it requires persons to notify the FCA of the size of their short positions in shares traded on a UK trading venue. It also gives the FCA various powers to intervene in response to exceptional circumstances that pose a serious threat to financial stability or market confidence in the UK. These include requiring the notification or disclosure of short positions, as well as restricting short selling to periods of up to three months. Furthermore, the FCA can temporarily prohibit or restrict short selling when the price has fallen significantly during a single trading day relative to the closing price of that instrument on the previous trading day. This regime is working as intended, providing the necessary safeguards to allow the operation of a fair and effective market. The Government continue to work closely with the regulators and market participants to monitor the effectiveness of the entire regulatory regime to ensure that legislation continues to be fit for purpose and delivers on its objectives, in particular to support economic growth and maintain financial stability.

As my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering noted on the example of GameStop, the UK short selling regime was not breached because it does not apply to shares admitted to trading on US trading venues. Furthermore, the regime that I have just set out that applies to short selling would mean that in such a scenario in the UK the FCA would have been able to identify short positions building up and would have been able effectively to engage with the firms holding the short positions in that case.

I am not sure that I recognise the characterisation of the Bank for International Settlements’ report set out by my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering, but I will happily write to her on that matter.

A number of noble Lords have spoken, from different perspectives, in favour of a review of short selling. In response to a number of direct questions about what jurisdictions such a review would look at or whether it would look at relaxing or shoring up such regulations, at this point the Government do not see this issue as the most pressing area of financial services regulation to look at. We see no need to conduct a review of this legislation at this time, so I ask my noble friend Lady McIntosh to withdraw her amendment.

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This is a live arrangement that constantly tries to strike that balance between proper information co-ordination and groupthink, and that is the territory on which we need to remain. I am very concerned about any change that drives us towards a more unified regulatory structure where inevitably one group begins to take the lead and dominate the other. We need that balance to make sure that challenge remains in the system and that conduct, which has always been the Cinderella activity, is on a par with prudential regulation.
Lord Eatwell Portrait Lord Eatwell (Lab)
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My Lords, those of us who were involved in the discussions on the Financial Services Act 2012 will no doubt remember the debate in which the noble Lord, Lord Sassoon, then speaking for the Government, revealed that the principals of the tripartite committee—the noble Lord, Lord King, Gordon Brown and Howard Davies—had never met. He then revealed that the committee had slowly moved down in terms of the seniority of the officials who attended, and it was basically steadily downgraded into complete irrelevance. It was a co-ordinating committee between the Bank of England, the Financial Services Authority and the Treasury, and it did not meet. What this suggests to me is that an effective committee to deal with some of the issues of co-ordination, which have been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, in moving his amendment, must have an organic purpose identified and shared by the participants. There must be, if you like, some enthusiasm about the operations of the committee which encourages everyone to participate fully.

In the discussion we have had on this amendment, I have been struck by the nostalgia for the FSA. I shared with the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, the feeling that breaking up the FSA was unnecessary. Indeed, I think it was mainly done to show that something was being done rather than having to face up to the intellectual, analytical and groupthink failures to which the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, referred. However, if there is the problem which the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, has identified, the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, has once again come up with the right answer, which is that there would be an organic interest of both to work together if they had to report to a suitably well-resourced and tough parliamentary committee which then ensured not only that the conditions of the MoU were being followed but that other identified overlaps were being dealt with in a productive way. So I think we come back once again to the debate we had concerning parliamentary scrutiny and identify, yet again, a positive role for Parliament in this respect.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, this debate has taken us back to a number of the issues that were brought sharply into focus during the passage of the Financial Services Act 2012. It has been useful. I therefore begin by assuring the Committee that the Government agree that we now have an important opportunity, not least in the wake of our exit from the EU, to review our regulatory framework and ensure that it is high-quality, agile and fit for the future. I assure my noble friend Lord Trenchard in particular that we will progress the future regulatory framework review as a priority and take specific action in high-priority areas, as I have set out in previous debates. I hope noble Lords will forgive me if I do not rehearse the remarks that I made in our earlier debate on competitiveness—a subject to which we will return, I am sure.

Amendment 86 seeks to establish a new joint co-ordination committee for the PRA and FCA to ensure that their activities are consistent and proportionate. Of course, the Government agree that it is important that the PRA and FCA work closely together and take a co-ordinated approach to the regulation and supervision of firms. However, I respectfully submit that this amendment is not necessary to ensure that that is the case. As my noble friend Lord Blackwell noted, the PRA and the FCA have different statutory objectives, which will naturally—and, on occasion, rightly—lead to differing priorities as these objectives are pursued.

I note the reservations expressed by my noble friends Lady Noakes and Lord Trenchard. However, this model was agreed by Parliament in the Financial Services Act 2012 as part of the post-crisis reforms, and the Government and regulators have taken a number of actions to support and improve co-ordination between the institutions while they carry out their different objectives. I believe that this addresses in a very real way the issue that my noble friend Lord Blackwell seeks to highlight through his amendment.

As mentioned in the amendment itself, there is already a memorandum of understanding between the FCA and the PRA, as set out in the Financial Services and Markets Act as amended. The MoU sets the framework for co-operation on a number of issues, particularly dual-regulated entities. In April 2020, the regulators introduced the new Regulatory Initiatives Grid, supported by a senior co-ordinating forum. The grid’s purpose is to increase co-ordination across the regulatory landscape. It provides a user-friendly overview of upcoming changes to allow the sector to plan for the future more effectively.

The senior co-ordinating forum is chaired jointly by the chief executive of the FCA and the chief executive of the PRA. It discusses the combined impact of regulatory initiatives across the financial services sector, and seeks to allow the Government and regulators to identify and address any peaks in regulatory demands on firms. The forum also provides a clearer picture of upcoming initiatives so that firms are better placed to plan for them, supporting the regulatory principles of proportionality and transparency.

I hope that those remarks are helpful in providing the background to the co-ordination that we have seen put in place and that, therefore, my noble friend Lord Blackwell will feel sufficiently reassured to be able to withdraw his amendment.

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Baroness Kramer Portrait Baroness Kramer (LD)
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My Lords, I shall begin by addressing Amendments 100 and 105, which would require reports that would be both useful and interesting. However, I want to pick up the point that was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, who essentially took the position—I understand its logic—“Why bother to seek equivalence from the EU?” I think she said, “They wish us ill and see a competitive advantage in not offering equivalence.” However, I do not think she listened carefully to my noble friend Lady Bowles, who comes with a great deal of experience from the EU. The point my noble friend made is that in the EU, which is a rules-based organisation —that is its absolutely core fundamental structure—it is quite hard to offer equivalence to a financial centre where those who are regulating it make it very clear that they want great flexibility to be able to make change very easily and with very little process. That is what we are doing with this Bill.

Essentially, we are removing the normal parliamentary processes that would have been engaged in the process of changing regulation and leaving it in the hands of the regulator, with, as we have all discussed, virtually no accountability to Parliament. It seems from what we read that a 12-week consultation would be about all that is required for a regulator to change the rules, compared with the process in the EU, which people may regard as cumbersome but which has with it extensive consultation, engagement and oversight, and which flushes out exactly what is associated with, what is involved with and what the consequences are of that rule change. We will now have light-touch rule change—that would be an accurate way to describe it. In an atmosphere where there is very little trust—the language certainly has not been that which would develop and promote trust—I can certainly see why the EU would be uncomfortable with the idea of offering equivalence in those circumstances. Therefore, it is not a determination to do us ill but, to a significant degree, some shock that change will happen so often that it will have very little idea of the rule base that applies in the UK and certainly will not understand its various ramifications.

However, in a sense it really does not matter. I find it quite shattering that we have a Government—the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, seems to be aligned with them—who say, “We are really not interested in being able to sell our services into the second-largest economy on the globe”—whether measured by population or in terms of GDP. That is a huge and significant market. We have never been successful at selling financial services into the United States, partly because it has its own, very stalwart financial services sector. I suggest that selling financial services into China will be exceedingly difficult over many years. China will wish to develop its own financial centre; it has Hong Kong. We begin then to look at countries across Asia and in South America. However, I think we will find very shortly that they intend to develop their own financial centres. When I have talked to people in India, they would be willing to do some work here with people in the UK but they want to develop Mumbai. We are seeing a regionalisation of economic blocs, which will lead to a rise of significant financial centres in other locations across the globe. There is a real danger in dismissing with a wave of the hand the customers who sit on our doorstep, who have traditionally been our core customers, and saying, in essence, “It really doesn’t matter whether we are able to sell them services. Let’s look elsewhere.” I am not sure that “elsewhere” looks quite so promising.

What I found most interesting in this whole debate was a very different set of questions raised by my noble friend Lady Bowles. To me they were, if you like, the financial services equivalent of the chlorinated chicken question. As we go out and seek to sell our financial services more broadly, presumably, many of those locations will turn to us and say, “You can sell to us provided we can sell to you. We’re developing our financial sector and we would like to have access to your markets.” My noble friend was asking: what standards will we be using to determine that reciprocity? As I say, it is the chlorinated chicken question. We have not heard much—or anything, frankly—from the Government about what standards we will apply under those circumstances.

It seems to me that, when we assert that we can find markets all over the globe that will take the place of the EU—and that this can be done rapidly and very easily—we have to answer that question. Are we going to have to pay the price of providing reciprocity to financial centres whose standards do not meet our own? What are the consequences of that if those entities are then freely able to enter the UK market? We have a long history of concern about money laundering and market abuse. There are very serious questions associated with that; I would like to begin to hear some answers.

Lord Eatwell Portrait Lord Eatwell (Lab)
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My Lords, I have been very struck by this particular debate and the positions taken by Members of the Grand Committee. I approach this question of our future financial services relationship with the European Union with a sort of historical perspective. In a way, the financial services industry in this country is unique in the history of financial centres in that it is a financial centre without any significant savings or economic hinterland. The great financial centres of history—be it Venice, Amsterdam, 19th-century London or 20th/21st-century New York—have thrived on a powerful flow of domestic and imperial savings, and have tended to fade when that flow has dried up.

The fact that the City of London has continued to thrive even as Britain has lost its Empire and the UK economy has lost its dominant position is no doubt due to a remarkable concentration of talent and entrepreneurship; to the remarkable luck of widespread access to financial markets around the world; and to becoming, as the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, pointed out, the financial centre of the European Union. The international liberalisation of the 1980s and the creation of the European single market gave the City access to that economic hinterland and the opportunity to provide financial services throughout an open market.

As we know, the openness of the European market for financial services to the UK is now in question. As this Bill makes clear, access that was previously open is now potentially closed and hanging on this delicate thread of equivalence. It is interesting to see that the Bill is nervous about equivalence. On page 65, we read that

“the FCA must consider, and consult the Treasury about, the likely effect of the rules on relevant equivalence decisions.”

On page 82, we read that

“the PRA must consider, and consult the Treasury about, the likely effect of the rules on relevant equivalence decisions.”

That nervousness is well founded. I agree with the noble Lords who have been critical of the European Union that the likelihood of equivalence being the foundation of successful financial activities for the City’s continuing growth in Europe is at least in great doubt. Indeed, just imagine the chief executive of a big international bank or an asset manager with a large number of employees in London telling the board of directors that they are planning their long-term investments on the shaky foundations of a political equivalence ruling by Brussels.

At the moment, the only thread that seems to be at least holding and maintaining the potential of access to a market of 500 million people is the memorandum of understanding, which was due in June but is still apparently debated. However, a draft that was leaked to the Politico website

“states categorically that equivalence findings remain unilateral decisions, meaning the U.K. would have no recourse if the EU opted to withdraw it.”

The draft does propose the creation of an EU-UK financial regulatory forum but this resembles the arrangement with the United States that is defined as “strictly informal”. I think that access will be diminished, perhaps significantly. That is the only certain conclusion we can make. Perhaps the Minister will tell us more about the progress of the memorandum of understanding when he sums up.