City offensive is too little too late for FSA
Slowly but surely, the Financial Services Authority is being stripped of its duties.
The latest update from the Government on the coalition's policy programme falls short of confirming that George Osborne will keep his pre-election pledge to abolish the regulator altogether.
But after the first deal between the Tories and the Lib Dems confirmed new macro-prudential powers for the Bank of England, yesterday's statement revealed that there is to be a single new agency launched to tackle economic crime.
Still, the FSA is not going down without a fight. The £2.8m fine it handed down to the ex-stockbroker Simon Eagle yesterday was three times the size of the largest penalty the regulator has previously levied on an individual. Though this case goes back six years, the size of the fine that Mr Eagle must pay is part of a pattern at the FSA, which has shown a newfound zest for cracking down on City wrongdoing.
Too little, too late? Well, City lawyers are genuinely full of praise for the FSA's attempts to up its game since the financial crisis, and single out the regulator's enforcement division, lead by the highly regarded Margaret Cole, as a force that is to be reckoned with.
Yet for all the good intentions and hard work, the results so far have been limited. On insider trading, the criminality the FSA really wants to tackle, it has secured only a handful of convictions. The most high-profile case, against the former Cazenove banker Malcolm Calvert, saw him jailed for 21 months, but the FSA faced criticism for failing to identify who in the City had fed him tips in the first place.
Similarly, although a series of dawn raids and arrests of suspects in insider dealing rings over the past couple of months have won the FSA some decent headlines, no charges have yet been brought.
These investigations take time, of course, but there is no guarantee they will ever bear fruit.
There is certainly no shortage of misbehaviour to go after. The regulator itself says almost a third of the takeover deals announced in 2008, the last year which it has studied, were preceded by suspicious share trading, a sharp rise on the past. In that context, the small handful of cases brought by the regulator looks woeful.
The truth is that this country has never properly tackled white-collar crime. The FSA had plenty of time to prove it was the agency to do so, but improvements of late notwithstanding, we have not seen enough good results.
Moreover, while the regulator has been working closely with bodies such as the Serious Organised Crime Agency, it must make sense to have a single authority in charge, both for the sake of operational efficiency and accountability. This is the right move.