No April Fool: New financial regulator takes over reins next week

The Financial Conduct Authority and Prudential Regulation Authority take up their responsibilities next week. Photo: PA Wire

As has been the joke for ages among City watchers, on April Fools' Day, the new, and substantially different way of making sure the banks don't repeat the mistakes of the past begins. The snappily named, Financial Conduct Authority and Prudential Regulation Authority take up their responsibilities next week. Broadly, the FCA will make sure that customers get a fair deal, and the PRA will supervise the banks, and make sure that they are safe.

I've just been talking to the new boss of the FCA, Martin Wheatley and he certainly has a lot to say. The FCA will stay in the same glittering Canary Wharf tower as its predecessors, the FSA. It is an eerie place at the moment as roughly a thousand staff have been moved across to the PRA already, so there are empty meeting rooms, hallways and offices. But Wheatley is adamant that the new organisation will have a very different approach. He will have the power to prosecute, to throw people out of the industry, to take banks' licences way. So how will he use it? And will a new organisation with a new name plate make much difference?

He told me once that the FCA would 'shoot first, and ask questions later' - today he says what that means in practice is being curious enough about what is going on in the industry to spot problems before they occur - maybe using social networks to watch what is going on, identifiying the questions before they need to be answered. It all sounds very logical, but he is taking over the job of monitoring an industry that has some serious problems, not just the hole in the banks' balance sheets the Bank of England identified yesterday, but consumer scandals, a pay culture that many of the public think is scandalous, and the rest.

The new boss of the Financial Conduct Authority, Martin Wheatley. Credit: PA Wire

Just today there's evidence of one of the problems he is worried about. Thousands of RBS and Natwest customers were locked out of using their bank accounts on the move when the apps crashed. Wheatley's convinced this isn't just a passing irritation, but an industry wide risk. He told me the industry is based on "relatively fragile IT systems", saying "we are concerned that the industry has underinvested in their systems". He says simply, "the systems have to work" and is on the banks' case about updating their IT. He himself does not yet use mobile banking, although he does do a lot of internet banking.

On the ongoing saga of PPI mis-selling that has already cost nearly 10 billion, he has no sympathy with the banks' pleas to put a time limit on claims. He says plainly the only way to put an end to it is for the banks themselves to write to all their customers to ascertain if they have a claim, then the customers have three years to decide whether or not to claim. He describes PPI as a "500 million a month wakeup call" to the banks that they have to put their houses in order to move on. Part of that he believes is sorting out they way bankers are paid, "the compensation structure is still wrong" and bonuses "have been too high".

Wheatley acknowledges, "we are asking a lot of the banks" - asking them to store up capital to be safer, to lend more at the same time, to clear up the mess made in the run up to the credit crunch, to get out of riskier lending without leaving customers in the lurch, the list is long and problems not simple to solve. But it is abundantly clear, despite some of the FSA's last few decisions being heavily criticised, that the new organisation's intention at least, is to act fast, act decisively and act often. They might officially take over the reins on a day that leaves them open to gags. They're well aware the first time something goes wrong, the unfortunate choice of date will be remembered. But the job ahead of them is anything but a joke.