Regulation, the FSA and the Bank of England

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Edmund Conway, writing in The Telegraph this week, says he thinks he's partly to blame for the recession. At an interview meeting at the Bank of England a couple of years ago, he saw some scary charts suggesting that the banks were lending far more then they had in their vaults. And that if a problem arose, they would have great difficulties covering the shortfall. Yes, he did report these worries at the time. But in hindsight, he says, he should have made far more of them.

But Edmund and his media colleagues aren't really to blame. The real culprit is Gordon Brown, who took banking regulation away from the Bank of England in 1997, and shipped it out East to the Financial Services Authority, in their Canary Wharf tombstone. The fact is that the Bank knew what was going on in the markets, while the FSA hadn't a clue. The Bank knew what the banks were doing, and which of them were coming in to borrow money to cover their short-term embarrassments. The FSA was more interested in making sure they all ticked boxes and treated their customers nicely.

So the real cause of the problem was that the Bank had all that information, and couldn't do anything about it. Apart from tell the FSA, which they did. But the FSA didn't do anything like enough to check out such problems and get the banks to balance their books.

Brown took banking regulation away from the Bank of England for the best of reasons. He thought it might conflict with the new power that he had given them, the power to set interest rates (and for giving them that power, he has been rightly applauded). But that was still a mistake.