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Move to rules-based system will need a change in culture

Ireland's plans to reverse a six-year separation of the Financial Regulator from the Central Bank, and the European Commission's push to set up three new pan-EU authorities to oversee financial regulation, are all very fine in their own ways.

If two years of unprecedented financial turmoil have taught us anything, it's the need for joined-up regulatory thinking for a system that transcends borders.

But even the most sweeping overhaul of the regulatory architecture -- be it in Washington, Brussels, London or Dublin -- will not matter a jot unless the actual supervisors are up to the job.

There can be no denying that the spinning off of the Financial Regulator from the functions of the Central Bank in 2003, with a 'light touch' mandate, has been an outright failure.

The Central Bank can claim it issued numerous warnings in various reports in the boom days about how the property bubble was unsustainable and that the economy was vulnerable to a very serious international shock.

But you would wonder who these voluminous tomes were aimed at when the relevant authority, the Financial Regulator -- most of whose staff are based in the very same office complex on Dame Street -- and the Government did not act on the alerts.

Unveiling the overhaul yesterday, Finance Minister Brian Lenihan said a key driver of the move is to "restore the reputation of the country as a sound and secure centre of excellence in international financial services".

This is very important, with up to 100,000 people employed in the sector -- a quarter of whom are based in the IFSC.


But the over-riding purpose surely must be to ensure that ordinary taxpayers are never again left picking up the pieces of such utter regulatory incompetence.

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We are, after all, currently paying for the Government's attempt to reboot the banking system -- through a massive guarantee scheme, recapitalisations, a nationalisation, and an ambitious 'bad bank' plan -- with the most punitive fiscal policies of a generation.

It was only after the €440bn banking guarantee was introduced last September that the watchdog went on a major drive to hire 20 hands-on supervisors to oversee risk management in the domestic lenders.

The dire financial jobs market ensured it got plenty of applicants with the proper experience in risk, treasury, compliance, audit and inspection, and financial investigation. Almost 700 people applied.

The regulator is currently looking for 20 supervisors to take a more probing look into the goings-on in international banks and insurers (the deadline for applications is today). These steps, while welcome, came way too late to prevent the current crisis.

The recruitment of the right new head of financial supervision who, alongside a head of central banking, will report to the governor of the Central Bank, will be key.


EU plans -- championed by France and Germany -- to set up one body to monitor the overall health of the financial sector, and another to oversee the work of national regulators, should ensure there will be enough referees and linesmen on the pitch.

It is likely, too, that Ireland will be dragged along by a global trend towards 'rules-based' regulation, rather than the existing 'principles-based' approach, which relies on bankers to adhere to codes of conduct.

This carries a visceral appeal. But there is still a need for a complete change in banking culture, according to Darren O'Neill, partner at Distinct Consulting, a specialist in financial services risk management.

"Many financial services institutions seem to think of risk management as a necessary evil but the reality is that a robust risk management infrastructure, from stress testing to reporting and process management, needs to be embedded into everything that the banks do. It cannot be treated as an add-on or box-ticking exercise."

Announcing change is easy. Achieving it is an entirely different matter.

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