Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Financial Reform-Shame to waste a crisis!

I have survived the Christmas, thanks to the good weather did not eat or drink as much and watch as much bad TV. The dry and fine weather meant I could get out on the farm down home in Borrisokane and do some long overdue work cutting some ditches and clearing scrub. Like every other sector farmers have been hit by the recession and I am expecting interesting negotiations with those renting my land in the coming weeks on prices for this year. On a positive note I got a letter from Tipperary GAA letting me know I had won €200 in the weekly lotto draw. Would be great now if the Premier followed that up with an All-Ireland in 2009 as well!

The fresh air gave me some time to reflect on 2008 and of course the 2 big stories of the year were the collapse of our banking system and big shift in consumer spending and habits. So in this blog and the next will look at those issues in depth. But as well as looking at the problem I will try and come up with some possible solutions.

We need a radical overhaul of the financial services sector, people talk of regulatory reform but the fundamental issue is that the system is sales and commission driven and shareholder value trumps everything else. Of course it makes sense to incentivise people, but there have to be some limits and safeguards in place. Unlike buying a pint of milk, consumer protection for consumers purchasing a mortgage needs to be strong and effective, because if things go wrong its very serious for the individual. And as we have seen in recent months, if things go wrong on a grand scale, its very serious for all of us. We have seen this at its worst in the US. Sub prime lenders employed people on a commission basis who went out and sold mortgages to people to buy houses they couldn't afford. The salespeople didn't care whether people could afford the mortgages or not, they got paid for selling them. The sub-prime lenders didn't really care either because they repackaged these mortgages and sold them onto respectable financial institutions who are now dealing with these toxic assets and the fallout. It says a lot about the sharp suits in these institutions with their MBAs that they paid good money for such lousy assets.

The only difference here is that the sub-prime market was only getting going when the bubble burst, things could have been a lot worse if the credit crunch started now instead of August 2007. But a lot of other things were going on here, banks were shovelling out money on personal loans, mortgages, credit cards. I know of cases where people got huge bonuses and holidays for selling products that were definitely not in the interests of the customer. The salesperson didn't care, they got the bonus and if there is a problem it's the customers problem. The Financial Ombudsman has done excellent work on exposing some of the worst cases, but I suspect these are just the tip of the iceberg. I accept that customers have responsibility too, but for many people financial products and services are mind boggling and they are quite literally at the mercy of the salesperson.

At another level banks as we have seen shovelled out money to property developers and builders as if they felt they could defy logic and the premise that what goes up must come down. Like sheep the banks cheered on by stockbrokers, economists and other "experts" lent billions. That policy came home to roost for all the banks, especially Anglo Irish which is most exposed and we are all suffering as a result. No one has taken responsibility for this, Sean Fitzpatrick and David Drumm in Anglo did resign, but their resignations were related to concealment of directors loans. I am sure their resignations will be temporary hiccup, they will take comfort from other high fliers such as Kryan McLoughlin who had to resign as a director of Davys a decade ago due to embarrassing personal tax issues, but is now more powerful than ever. Indeed as Deputy Chairman of Davys which is heavily involved in the Aer Lingus takeover bid on behalf of Ryanair and as a director of Ryanair itself, he will be playing a crucial behind the scenes role in 2009. (The Ryanair takeover of Aer Lingus would be a disaster for consumers in my view, this is something I plan to return to in early 2009)

An apology for only $59.95!

So what can be done? Well Barack Obama's new Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is on record as saying, "never waste a crisis" That idea that our current difficulties present opportunities to reform the system in a way that was unthinkable a year ago to prevent a repeat of what has happened.

It might have been necessary initially given the urgency of the situation for the Government to engage solely with the banks, but now there is no excuse. If we are to reform the financial services system, the Government needs to engage with all the stakeholders including consumer organisations, rather than just the banks. Secondly all need to accept that "principles based" or light touch regulation has failed (or as I would refer to it soft touch regulation) and we need a rules based system. Thirdly the Government needs to carry out the review of the effectiveness of the financial regulator in its consumer protection role as promised in the report of the Consumer Strategy Group. Fourthly we need to investigate the possibility of a free impartial financial advice for consumers along the lines being discussed in the UK and that's just for starters. This is one of the issues which the Carnegie Commission on Civil Society is looking at as part of our work and we plan to hold an event in London in February to look at reform of the financial services sector for the benefit of all. So after that I may even have more ideas.