Business Irish

Saturday 18 November 2017

Quinn finds out hard way that new watchdog has teeth

There are two reliable ways of telling if you have won an argument. The first is if your disputants switch from discussion of the facts to accusations about motives; the second, more obviously, is if they descend to abuse.

Sean Quinn resorted to the latter in his debacle with the Financial Regulator last week.

Naturally, once the Financial Regulator seized control of Quinn Insurance, Sean Quinn reacted with fury.

He wrote to government ministers and opposition leaders demanding the decision to appoint provisional administrators to his insurance company be "rescinded immediately".

He described the regulator's actions as "one of the biggest errors ever in the history of corporate Ireland".

And, in case this wasn't enough, he went on to personally phone a number of ministers and then complained publicly when none of them returned his calls.

Why should they return his calls? The suggestion that Mr Quinn could hold a gun to the Government's head to make the regulator allow the Quinn Group to operate as it pleases is crazy.

It was this sort of political interference, coupled with 'sure, 'twill do' financial regulation, that got us into the financial crisis in the first place.

Perhaps the decision by the ministers to leave Quinn's calls unanswered is a sign that the parochial style of Irish politics might finally be changing.

It's a dangerous idea to give politicians any real power other than just posturing power, when it comes to hard business judgments. The last thing this country needs is decisions to be influenced by a host of petty political factors, all cloaked in that amorphous, catch-all phrase, "national interest".

That's why the appointment of the new Financial Regulator Matthew Elderfield is proving so interesting.

He did more than just close the stable door last week. He gave it a new lick of paint, a good shake to check the lock had caught and made it quite clear that Sean Quinn or the bank chiefs are not to come knocking anytime soon.

After all, not alone is Elderfield responsible for provisional administrators being appointed to Quinn Insurance, his decisions are the reason for the higher-than-expected NAMA discount; and on top of this he has also subjected the non-NAMA portions of the banks' loan books to rigorous stress-testing.

Instead of light-touch regulation, Elderfield favours truth-based regulation. He spots a bubble. He can tell it's all about to go pear-shaped, and that the taxpayer will end up coughing up the cash.

Traditionally, the regulator kept quiet, perhaps whispering a warning to a chief executive or two. Under truth-based regulation, Elderfield says it as he sees it. But he also comes from the school of outsider-based regulation.

Only people unconnected with this country could look at Quinn Group and its 5,500 jobs and say: "Hang on a minute. I just don't get this. It's not adding up." No doubt he is ruffling some feathers over in the Department of Finance. Ministers usually appointed civil servants to these key positions and this is what caused much of the trouble in the past.

But Elderfield must now realise he is also involved in ego-based regulation. He has to accept this is a pretty thankless job, only suitable for those who want to move on to bigger and better things and to give heart-warming interviews about getting Ireland's financial industry back on track.

The politics of regulation are always terrible and never simple. As Congressman Barney Frank told former US treasury secretary Hank Paulson at the height of the banking crisis: "No one gets re-elected for preventing a crisis."

Irish Independent

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