The MT Diary

DTI ripe for demolition; accountants unsettled; Big Apple gridlock; Koizumi pitches in.

by
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

As the election approaches, are vultures circling above the Department of Trade and Industry? The permanent secretary, Robin Young, a canny Whitehall warrior of great experience, has said he'll leave early next year. Perhaps he suspects a Downing Street coup.

Twice in recent memory the Treasury has taken bites out of the DTI under cover of darkness on election night. In 1993, it took over  financial services regulation, and in 1997 it bit off the insurance industry, a meal that has proved less digestible than it thought.

These two land grabs cleared the way for the FSA, but the borderline between the responsibilities of the Treasury and the DTI remains messy. The Treasury has security markets, the DTI accountants; the Treasury has market abuse and insider dealing, the DTI retains company law and corporate governance. It would be far tidier if the Treasury took over the whole of corporate regulation.

There is also strong logic in switching responsibility for trade promotion to the foreign office. In an attempt to improve co-ordination, a single minister has been put in charge of both departments. It's an untidy arrangement. Why not do what the Australians did a few years ago and create a ministry of foreign affairs and trade? That model is working well down under.

The productivity bits of the DTI could be merged with the Treasury's productivity unit, and responsibility for scientific research could go to the Department for Education and Skills, which would make more sense. Which leaves... nothing much. Many of the staff would be absorbed one way or another, though there'd be a helpful contribution to the civil service savings Gordon Brown has announced. And there'd be no need for a permanent Secretary. Luckily, there won't now be one to redeploy.

Accountants might not welcome this change, though. The profession is fighting to persuade the Government to legislate to allow limited liability for their partnerships. They argue that in most other countries liability is capped or restrained. No effective professional indemnity insurance is now available and a major loss here (from something like the Equitable Life case) might ruin another firm globally. 

Patricia Hewitt is thought to be sympathetic, but the Treasury is sceptical. The accounting profession is not a popular cause just now. It has hardly covered itself with glory in recent years. But in my view its case is a powerful one.

In the US, the profession is getting a huge boost from Sarbanes-Oxley, the accounting reform and investor protection Act. The 404 certification process is extremely expensive – thousands and thousands of chargeable hours running the rule over risk control systems of all kinds. We will not know for some time, if ever, whether all this activity is worthwhile.

But the downside for the Big Four is that more and more companies are cutting back on non-audit work for their auditors. In principle, this ought simply to mean some shuffling around of contracts: Ernst & Young will do tax work for PwC audit clients, and vice versa, for example. But it could just create some room for new entrants. If so, that would be a welcome, if incidental, outcome. It would be good if it also created new firms able to challenge for the biggest global audits, but I suspect that few are rushing into that market just now.

In the autumn, New York is a delightful place. Warmer than London, with brighter sunshine and fresher air – once the muggy heat of summer has blown away. The only hazard is the United Nations. The general assembly meeting is barely reported in Britain (Blair
didn't go this year; Bush spoke for him). But in New York it's hard to avoid. Each hotel houses a clutch of enormous national delegations. And the Americans have gone overboard on security. The result is total gridlock throughout Manhattan. While such an inconvenience is cheerfully accepted for the Republican convention, for the UN it does not go down so well.

Whereas over here the UN is seen as a vaguely positive and at worst inoffensive institution, over there each city has a radio station devoted to anti-UN propaganda. The intention of the UN's founders to bind the US in by locating its headquarters in New York has rebounded badly.

The Japanese were out in force in New York. Prime minister Koizumi even threw out the first pitch at an end-of-season Yankees/Red Sox game I attended (for research purposes, you understand). He looked cheerful and relaxed. Perhaps he has reason to be so. After more than a decade of stagnation, the Japanese economy is on the move, the banks are back in favour with investors and share prices are up.

In London, solid proof that things have turned round came in the form of a magnificent concert at St Paul's Cathedral, sponsored by Mizuho for the Lord Mayor's appeal. Colin Davis conducted the LSO in an uplifting performance of Beethoven's ninth. The Ode to Joy was sung in honour of credit controllers in Japanese banks, who at last see their non- performing loan balances reducing.

It will be good to have the Japanese back in action, as long as they don't get up to their old tricks of lending to single-A credits at one-eighth over Libor (the London interbank offered rate). But there is every sign that this lesson, at least, has been painfully learnt.

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