This morning the FSA takes the regulatory blame for Northern Rock and admits it made mistakes.
I think it is a case of mistaken identity. It was the Chancellor and the Bank of England that presided over the collapse of Northern Rock, not the FSA.
Remember what happened. In the summer of 2007 money markets dried up in an unprecedented way. Some of us went hoarse telling the Bank of England they needed to make more money available so the money markets could function.
Instead, in September, knowing Northern Rock could not borrow all it needed from the money markets, the Chancellor and the Governor of the Bank made speeches saying banks had lent too much and if they got into trouble it served them right. There would be no bail out.
There was then a run on Northern Rock, as small depositors sought to take their money out. (All this was obvious at the time â€“ see the tab on Northern Rock for my contemporary comments on the Bankâ€™s inaction and the Chancellorâ€™s moral hazard speech).
Fortunately for Northern Rock, after huge damage had been done, the Chancellor and the Bank changed their minds and intervened to protect depositors.
I would not conclude from this that the FSA had got its stress testing wrong â€“ or that the FSA needs more staff. I would conclude that both the Directors of Northern Rock and the FSA did their jobs in the belief that money markets would continue to function, and that the Chancellor would avoid comments that were damaging to regulated banks. These beliefs were not unreasonable. Northern Rock raised money in three main ways â€“ from the money markets, from retail depositors and from securitisation. So do most banks, to differing degrees. As we have seen, other institutions can get into difficulties if money markets seize up, as with Bear Stearns.
What was wrong was that the Bank of England kept the markets so short of funds in August and September, and what was wrong was the speech and interviews of the Chancellor blaming the banks at the very point where a crisis of confidence was about to erupt.
The correct response to this crisis is not to appoint more staff at the FSA and let the FSA take the blame. The correct response is to strengthen the banking arm of the Bank of England, and reconnect the Bank more directly to the full working of the money markets, with a remit to keep the markets reasonably liquid. The Bank has as its main responsibility the setting of interest rates. In recent months the rates it has set have often become academic, as market rates have deviated from them under the pressure of the credit crunch. The Bank needs not only to set rates, but to enforce them.
The questions to be asked today are not about the FSA but about the Chancellor and the Bank.
Does the Chancellor now accept that his no bail out speech was a mistake?
Does the Bank now think it should have made more liquidity available to markets last summer?
What action is the Bank going to take now to ensure that the rates it sets are the rates the market follows?
Will the government restore the powers and duties in banking and money markets to the Bank of England that it took away in 1997?