Business Day

New UK regulator puts onus on banks

- HUW JONES London

BRITAIN’s new watchdog has announced sweeping changes in financial regulation, telling banks they can no longer blame customers when products go wrong and promising to study how consumers behave to make sure they can make the right decisions.

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) is one of two new agencies launched this month to replace the Financial Services Authority and rewrite the rules for a financial industry brought low by the 2008 crisis and years of costly misbehavio­ur.

The FCA’s main focus is on protecting consumers who have been ripped off in recent years by the selling of inappropri­ate products in a series of scandals that led to settlement­s costing banks billions of pounds.

Banks would no longer be permitted to claim the “caveat emptor” or “buyer beware” defence when selling complex products to customers with little knowledge of finance, the FCA’s MD, Martin Wheatley, said yesterday. It signals a shift from the principle that has long underpinne­d UK financial regulation, under which the risk of an investment decision usually falls on the buyer.

“There are questions that many investors simply will not ask because they are humans, not automatons,” Mr Wheatley said in his first speech as boss, excerpts of which were made available in advance. “There is a question of how a regulator navigates the balance of power between consumer and provider.”

Mr Wheatley announced plans to draw on the emerging field of behavioura­l economics for the first time by a British regulator, to encourage better consumer decisions and stop sharp practice at banks, according to the excerpts.

Unlike traditiona­l economics, which assumes people will tend to

There are questions many investors will simply not ask because they are humans, not automatons

behave rationally, behavioura­l economics looks at how social and emotional factors lead people to make decisions. It uses insights from psychology to explore the reasons for mistakes, like failing to cut losses when an investment goes wrong or not understand­ing what compound interest is.

“We want the regulatory system to use behavioura­l economics to ascertain whether people are being put off switching products through inertia, inattentio­n or even the simple fear of regret from making the wrong decision,” Mr Wheatley said.

The FCA is part of Britain’s new supervisor­y system, launched to draw a line under both the financial crisis and two decades of scandals over the mis-selling of products. A separate body will supervise whether banks are sound, splitting the duties of the former FSA that used to be responsibl­e both for overseeing banks’ financial positions and for monitoring misbehavio­ur.

The banks’ £14bn compensati­on bill for mis-selling loan insurance is high enough for regulators to force them to hold more capital to keep the financial system stable.

Etay Katz, a financial services lawyer at Allen & Overy, said the speech marked a shift in responsibi­lity for banks delivering a product to mass markets. “The broader concern is that this will not only be applied just to retail but also to wholesale as well, so you can’t assume a big investor, like local authoritie­s, has the expertise that can be relied on,” he said. Reuters

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