All 2 Lord Desai contributions to the Financial Services Bill 2019-21

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Thu 28th Jan 2021
Financial Services Bill
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2nd reading (Hansard) & 2nd reading (Hansard) & 2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords & 2nd reading
Mon 1st Mar 2021

Financial Services Bill Debate

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Department: Cabinet Office

Financial Services Bill

Lord Desai Excerpts
2nd reading & 2nd reading (Hansard) & 2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
Thursday 28th January 2021

(3 years, 2 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Financial Services Bill 2019-21 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: Consideration of Bill Amendments as at 13 January 2021 - (13 Jan 2021)
Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, first, I apologise for being slightly late when the noble Lord had started presenting the Bill. It is my good luck to be able to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hammond. I briefly knew him when he was a Foreign Office Minister, and he gave me a very nice breakfast the day we unveiled the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. I do remember that. Of course, I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Shafik, who is director of the London School of Economics. As I am an emeritus professor, she is my boss, so I welcome her.

I was also, as the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, said, a member of the EU Financial Affairs Sub-Committee, and I have been through some of this in an earlier phase. I remember saying to some City witnesses that the City should not think it is popular in the country. When push comes to shove, the Government will go for fishermen, not the City. I said fishermen, but there are others to which that would apply. And I think the Government did go for the fishermen, not the City, because the City is not popular in the country.

We may say proud things about the City, but what has struck me—I state this observation—is that in the Bill, we have missed the chance, as many other noble Lords have said, to tighten up regulatory structures in the City. I was alarmed when I saw how much power the FCA is going to have. The FCA is not a very efficient regulatory institution.

Many noble Lords have mentioned the LCF case, and I think what had happened at LCF was known, and it was a scandal because lots of ordinary people were deprived by that scheme. I am sorry to say this, but even when it was known that this had happened, the head of the FCA was promoted. I know he was printing money for the Government, but I still think it does not look good, especially if we are going to establish a global reputation. If we are going to be competitive in the world, we must have a much better reputation for our regulatory institutions than we have.

I have been in your Lordships’ House for a long time. We started with the Baring Brothers, the BCCI and all sorts of other scandals, and we do slip up. Now we are on our own and we have to compete globally, we will have to really tighten up and not be smug about it. I hope this Bill gets amended or something else happens to get a better regulatory structure, better rules for the FCA, better accountability to Parliament and proper punishment for people failing on the job.

Financial Services Bill Debate

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Financial Services Bill

Lord Desai Excerpts
Viscount Trenchard Portrait Viscount Trenchard (Con) [V]
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My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles of Berkhamsted, makes a good case for introducing skilled person reviews of the regulators in addition to the parliamentary oversight arrangements that I hope will be agreed satisfactorily. This transfers the boot to the other foot; the difficulty would be in deciding who could be skilled enough to assess the regulators. Would the costs ultimately be borne by the regulated firms?

In the first three years after the introduction of skilled person reviews by the regulators in 2014, fees paid for skilled person reviews, generally confined to a number of issues on parts of a firm’s business, or only one, amounted to more than £500 million. The cost of a review may amount to several hundred thousand pounds. The real cost in terms of diverted management time, legal costs and remediation activities is often much greater than the simple cost.

It is interesting that only some 8% of skilled person reviews have led to enforcement actions, even though many reviews at the time of launch were feared by firms as likely precursors to enforcement. The number of skilled person reviews commissioned by the PRA and FCA increased from 44 in 2017-18 to 51—or nearly one a week—in 2018-19. I worry that regular reviews of the regulators would be very expensive, in terms of money and time. As my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe often suggests, is this not a clear example of a case where an impact assessment should be undertaken before introducing a statutory requirement? I look forward to the views of other noble Lords and the Minister on this matter.

Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I very much welcome the amendment. I have been a Member of your Lordships’ House for 30 years. Throughout that time we have had one crisis after another in the financial markets. I have the impression that most of the time they have been due to ignorance by top people of how the market is changing and of the new products and challenges. When I first got here in 1991 we had the Baring Brothers crisis. There was no doubt that the people sitting in London had no idea what a derivatives market was, and nor did the Bank of England. Nobody knew that Nick Leeson was operating on the Yokohama stock exchange. Public information was available, but nobody in London knew where it was. Therefore, they completely missed it. We also had the BCCI crisis, but that was a pure, untechnical fraud. That is another matter.

Most importantly, I remember debating the legislation that set up the FSA. At that time we thought the problem was that self-regulation had failed in various sectors, and that these sectors were interdependent, so we had to have an overarching framework. We set it all up, but it did not help when the crisis occurred in 2008. I remember reading the report by Adair Turner—now the noble Lord, Lord Turner. He said that they had been told by the experts not to disturb the markets and to trust them. We were very impressed by that and trusted the markets, but they were wrong.

Obviously, the interesting point is that by then the market had so many new products, with fairly sophisticated probability models behind them, that it would have been necessary for the regulators to be constantly aware of new developments in this field to be one step ahead of where the market was. I will give a slightly technical example. Adair Turner said that they were told that the markets were efficient, and therefore we should try not to correct what the markets were doing. We now know that the people who believed the market efficiency hypothesis and all that—and who convinced the world—were using very simple normal or bell-shaped distribution to model movements in the stock market. While normal distribution is very easy and frequently used, it is not suitable for every occasion in the market. What we call fat-tailed distribution would have been better and predicted the crisis much sooner. But this is a technical matter.

The regulator might not know what is happening out there in the financial, economics field. It ought to be informed periodically where the knowledge has got to and where the products are. This is not something where the skilled person can necessarily come from the banking sector of one country or another. We might have to find a skilled person who knows how rapidly the market is changing, how new products are being developed, and how the nature of uncertainty itself is changing.

I believe that the amendment is very welcome. I will add one more thing. When I first read the Bill I was appalled that so much weight is being put on the FCA. I really feel that the FCA is not up to the task. I hope that after all this legislation, the Treasury review and so on we might get a better FCA, but I have grave doubts. If we are to have the FCA as it is right now, we urgently need a skilled person review, maybe not every five years but more frequently than that.

The noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, referred to the cost. I can tell noble Lords that the cost of not doing this will be much more horrendous than the cost of doing it.

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Viscount Trenchard Portrait Viscount Trenchard (Con) [V]
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[Inaudible]—Amendment 45 in the names of my noble friends Lady Noakes and Lord Holmes of Richmond, and of the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles of Berkhamsted. We are midway through the process of transitioning from the familiar Libor benchmarks, the replacements for which have become more necessary since banks’ funding patterns have changed following the financial crisis. My noble friend Lord Holmes already asked the Minister what he thinks about synthetic Libor. I would also be most interested to hear his reply on that.

The Investment Association welcomes the additional powers for the FCA in the Bill as it will be better able to manage the transition, which should help to mitigate the uncertainty for holders of derivative contracts. There is the additional uncertainty caused by the existence of only temporary equivalence between UK and EU benchmark regulations. It is to be hoped that the EU will soon adopt the European Council’s recommendation to extend the transitioning period for third-country benchmark administrators to the end of 2025.

My noble friend’s Amendments 44 and 45 would be helpful improvements to the Bill, by making it clear that changes to benchmarks made by the FCA will apply to contracts made under benchmarks being revised. Rightly, they offer a safe harbour protecting parties to such contracts from legal actions resulting from benchmark changes. It is encouraging, as I mentioned, that the Investment Association supports this part of the Bill and I welcome these powers being handed to the FCA. My noble friend’s amendments would improve and reduce the risks inherent in exercising these powers and I support them.

Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, this is a technical matter and I have nothing to add to what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes. I am merely an academic but, when these things were going on, I wondered how people who swore by the free market could have had a cartel sitting in a little room, generating a rate of interest on which billions were based. Someday, somebody ought to explain to us how anybody could trust a cartel and hope that it will not be dishonest.

Lord Blackwell Portrait Lord Blackwell (Con) [V]
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My Lords, I too support these amendments and welcome the fact that the Bill addresses these issues. While Libor may have been effective in the past, we all know that it was becoming an unviable way of setting rates and was subject to manipulation, in the way mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Desai. It is therefore important that the regulators have taken a firm line in moving us on from Libor to other benchmarks. But, as my noble friend Lady Noakes set out, in doing that, there are lots of problems with continuity of contracts. The legislation is necessary to help address those issues and ensure that partners in contracts move together to a new common contract based on a synthetic Libor.

We have to recognise that no substitute for Libor will have exactly the same characteristics. There is no perfect substitute. Most contracts will be based on SONIA, the sterling overnight index average rate, but getting SONIA terms that have the same characteristics over time is not perfect, so there will be winners and losers. That is one reason why it is important that, to give certainty, the legislation requires the regulator to ensure that synthetic Libor interest rates are taken in the contracts as substituting for Libor for both parties.

As my noble friend Lady Noakes set out, however, some parties will not accept that. They will take the change in the contract as the basis to believe, argue or litigate that the contract has been abrogated. Some parties will be out of the money in a contract and it will simply serve their convenience to choose this method to abrogate the contract. Safe harbour is therefore an important secondary requirement. If banks are following the requirement of the regulator to stop using Libor, and following its instructions in substituting synthetic Libor, they cannot then be subject to litigation from counterparties claiming that, by following the instructions of the regulator, they have abrogated their contracts. This is an important thing for those contracts, which could, in particularly vulnerable contracts, involve vast sums of money.

The Government have launched a consultation on this, but I do not think that is a reason not to legislate in the timescale of this Bill. The problem has been known about for many months—indeed, years—and has been discussed. I do not believe the Government need a consultation to understand that there is a problem or that it must be dealt with. During the passage of this Bill, if not in these amendments then in the Government’s amendments, it is important for this to be incorporated into the Bill. Otherwise, the uncertainty will go on far too long. Libor will come to an end and these issues will present themselves. This Bill is the opportunity to address them.

In taking this issue seriously, can my noble friend the Minister commit that the Government will bring back amendments, or accept these amendments, during the passage of this Bill through the House?