Thursday, October 22, 2009

Upsetting the apple tart!

I was listening to our former leader Bertie Ahern on the radio last week plugging his new autobiography. Bertie was always a great man for what the experts call a malatropism, in laypersons terms getting his words and meanings mangled. One of the famous lines a few years ago was his exhortation to us that we shouldn't "upset the apple tart". Although some of us thought there was method in his malatropism!

Anyhow in the course of his interview with Pat Kenny he was asked about mistakes he made during this tenure. He was slow to admit any, except....and I drew my breath, at last some real insights....but no his only real mistake was the establishment of the Financial Regulator. He said that if he had the choice again he would never have removed the regulation of the banks from the Central Bank and that basically the Financial Regulator was too focused on "the consumer" because of all the overcharging scandals and ignored its prudential superivsion role. Now that comment I must say really did upset my applet tart for the rest of the day!

This was a line being spun by the Irish Bankers Federation during the summer as well, that the Financial Regulator was too busy on consumer issues and producing the "I don't know what a tracker mortgage is " adverts to notice that the banks were heading for the abyss. Now that is such a load of baloney. Of course that is a convenient because it allows the Government, the banks, the developers and sections of the media off the hook.

Now that is what I call a bank digout!

The demise of the Irish banking system resulted from a combination of factors, such as a very strong pro-construction policy by Government with tax reliefs for developers and investors, the insistence by the banks, stockbrokers, etc for "light touch" regulation which meant that the financial regulator got lots of meaningless data, but not any really useful information, the dependence of the banks on inter-bank funds, low interest rates and a flood of cheap credit money being shovelled out to consumers. On top of that you had a phalanx of economists and commentators in the banks and stockbroking firms and egged on by some politicians and sections of the media who added fuel to an already overheated market by telling us all to buy before it was too late and lashing out at anyone who questioned what was going on.

And given all that it is amazing, yet not surprising that some would try and say the edifice came crashing down because Pat Neary and co were too busy writing a consumer protection code and making adverts. While I welcomed the increase focus on consumer issues in the early years, progress has been very slow. No one could argue that Ireland is some sort of utopia for financial consumers! Ask anyone who is in debt, ask anyone who got bad advice, ask anyone who got ripped off, ask people who is struggling to find the next instalment of their loan or mortgage payment.

Yes mistakes were made in the establishment of the Financial Regulator, primarily the failure to put in strong people who would stand up to Government and the vested interests and their insistence on "light touch" regulation which hampered the ability of the institution to have any idea what was going on! And even when they did they appeared very slow to use the powers they did have.

Churchill once said "Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it." Therefore if we don't conduct a proper enquiry into how the banking crisis occured then we could be back in the same place within a generation. The Public Accounts Committee indicated that they would discuss the establishment of such an enquiry in September, but I am not sure what has happened to that. It may have been delayed by NAMA, but it does need to happen.

However as Bertie would say lets not be throwing red herrings and white elephants into the mix by blaming the banking crisis on the consumer. They are central players alright but only as the people who will pay for the sins of others.