Search This Blog

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Could The FCA Do More To Foster Innovation In Financial Services?

Previously I've suggested that two things are choking the flow of money to people and small businesses who need it: broken regulation and perverse incentives. So it's important to give some credit for work on both fronts.

Financial regulation remains overly complex, but at least some reforms have been made to welcome innovation and competition at the retail level. And the recent budget showed the government is keen to ensure that ISAs and pensions encourage people to put their eggs in more than one basket. The FCA has also done some impressive research into insurance add-ons.

However, for this momentum to be maintained, financial regulation must become even more welcoming of innovation and competition - and much simpler and transparent for everyone to understand. So here are seven suggestions:
  1. Tailored rulebooks: By the FCA's own admission, about 10% of the rules spread throughout its giant, ever-expanding 'Handbook' are relevant to each regulated activity. But the FCA does not gather the relevant rules into 'tailored' rulebooks, as the FSA used to do. That means everyone must waste time and resources wading through the 90% of rules that don't apply to their given activity. But it's worth noting that the FCA still maintains the helpful “Approach” documents that explain its separate regimes for e-money and payment services. Why not adopt this same 'approach' in other areas?
  2. Registered small firms option: The FCA authorisation process involves 6 to 9 months' work in advance of filing, at an estimated cost of £150,000 per firm (see note 10 from this Treasury/Cabinet Office workshop). It then takes another 3 to 12 months to become authorised, depending on the permission required. This makes funding the launch of a new financial service very expensive compared to an unregulated service, and the slow time to market increases the risk of failure (ironically). A 'registered small firms' option already exists in relation to e-money and payment services, and would reduce the cost and delay of market entry for firms preparing for full authorisation. It should be brought in more broadly.
  3. Client-money banking platform: Many authorised firms are obliged to 'safeguard' their clients' money by keeping it separate from their own funds in 'segregated' bank accounts. UK banks can be particularly slow and uncooperative in opening these accounts, which delays time to market. This, along with the recent financial and IT problems amongst UK banks, suggests it might be wise to 'ring fence' segregated accounts on a separate platform, possibly under the supervision of the new Payments Regulator.
  4. Small Investor Option: Any web designer will tell you that the more 'clicks' you put in the way of a consumer, the less likely it is the consumer will go through a process. So 'dialogue boxes' that require people to certify things or take tests to invest in bonds or shares will also deter them. That's a barrier to the adoption of new 'crowd-investment' services, which many people might prefer to try out with small amounts. In fact it's far easier to gamble on lotteries and bingo than it is to invest. So allowing people to be invited to invest up to, say, £250 in debt securities or shares per project on authorised crowd-investment platforms with a clear, fair and not misleading description of the risks, but without any form of certification, advice or appropriateness test would seem appropriate (see the French proposals for crowd-investment).
  5. Platform-level regulation: current financial regulation operates on the basis of different types of activity related to certain types of legal instrument, regardless of the customer experience. However, the online 'marketplace' model is now being applied to many different types of financial service, enabling people to transact directly with each other in relation to payments, savings, loans and investments, for example. Insurance and other services will likely follow down this path. This offers the chance to removing doubt and duplication by regulating common operational risks with a single set of rules at the platform level, with relatively few extra rules for different types of instruments or different types of activity being financed.
  6. FCA 'Sandbox': coupled with the registered small firms option, the FCA could maintain a more dynamic focus on innovation and competition if it offered a dedicated space or channel for evaluating new services - both inside and outside the regulated sphere - which would also help it decide whether to flex its rules to suit.
  7. Seek solutions from outside the existing market: the FCA should not assume that every innovation is designed to circumvent the existing regime to the detriment of customers. There are plenty of entrepreneurs who have spotted opportunities created by poor banking and are trying to increase transparency and reduce costs. So where the FCA is aware of existing consumer detriment or other market problems, it could present these to the market in open 'innovation workshops' - similar to those fostered by the Treasury/Cabinet Office - and/or release them into its 'sandbox'.
Your thoughts?