Is US criticism of UK's regulatory failures rooted in self-interest?

Britain used to boast about the wonders of its light-touch regulatory regime. Now the US Treasury Secretary is openly scoffing at it.

by James Taylor
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013
Few people in Whitehall would argue that the regulatory regime that governed the City before the credit crunch has been largely discredited - in fact, since it was all Labour's doing, the present Coalition are all too keen to criticise its failings. But now its approach is even coming under fire from one of our key allies: US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has been talking scornfully about 'the United Kingdom's experiment in a strategy of "light-touch" regulation', saying that it 'ended tragically'. However, it would be easier to take him seriously if the biggest implosion of all, Lehman Brothers, hadn't taken place on his own doorstep - or if his own country didn't have more to gain than most by discrediting London as a global financial centre...

Geithner's words, during a speech in the US, were supposedly aimed at encouraging a broader international consensus on regulation - or perhaps more specifically, as a warning to the fast-growing economies of the East not to use the regulatory crackdown in the West as a way to get new business. 'As we act to contain risk in the US, we want to minimise the chances that it simply moves to other markets around the world,' said Geithner. 'The United Kingdom's experiment in a strategy of "light-touch" regulation to attract business to London from New York and Frankfurt ended tragically.'

As the BBC's Robert Peston argues this morning, it's not totally clear that this 'experiment' was anything of the sort; light-touch regulation was surely a way to super-charge the growth of the banks, which the Government clearly thought was good for the UK as a whole (whoops), as opposed to a business development strategy per se - although Geither would argue that this ultimately amounts to the same thing.

But Geithner can't exactly claim that the US approach was blameless either. After all, that's where the enormous and unsustainable housing bubble developed, and that's where Lehman Brothers was allowed to collapse so spectacularly, in a way that almost brought down the entire financial system. Equally, as he makes clear, New York was one of the big losers from London's rise - and as such could be one of the big winners from its fall. So he's hardly a disinterested observer.

Either way, today will probably go down as one of George Osborne's better days, news-wise: he can fob off any regulatory criticism on the last lot, and both the IMF and the CBI have spoken out in favour of his current approach, despite fresh calls for him to consider a Plan B. The IMF said the Government's programme was 'essential'; it admitted the recent slowdown 'raises the question whether it is time to adjust macro-economic policies', but reckons 'the answer is no as the deviations are largely temporary'. The CBI was equally steadfast, with D-G John Cridland suggesting yesterday that Osborne was doing the right thing by sticking to his original course.

Osborne's heavy hand is probably set to guide us for some time to come. Meanwhile, given the US role in the crisis, Geithner could perhaps experiment with a lighter touch when it comes to criticism...

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