Opinion

Fintech and the future: New FCA CEO must fuse regulation and innovation

5 min read

21 July 2015

As the FCA's latest CEO falls by the wayside, Barry James urges Osborne and the government to pause for a moment and think long and hard about a decision that will have a profound impact on the world of finance in the coming decade – remembering to marry regulation with innovation.

Martin Wheatley, known to some since his “shoot first” directive as the dodgy Sheriff of Dodge City, has been “wounded” numerous times since – not least by mismanagement of market sensitive information that would have had the FCA down like a tonne of bricks, and no excuses, on anyone else in the city. 

That saw him hiring in PR deputies at vast cost to dig him out from under this mismanagement. His FCA career has clearly been tenuous for some time. His tenure, it has been announced, will expire, in a matter of weeks – his slot significantly vacant and his boots temporarily filled by a deputy.

As the government’s “worldwide” search begins for a replacement, there are a whole host of issues that clamour for first place, “like words” that hang in the air jostling for space and position. 

Not least among them the still feral banks, but not far behind the word “innovation” and the new world of “fintech” (alongside all the usual FCA worthy guff, it’s national anthem on “consumer protection” and a rousing chorus of “fair, clear and not misleading”).

FCA CEO Martin Wheatley's removal could signal a new era in terms of investment

So it may be worth pausing for a moment, especially in the light of the chancellor’s declaration only last summer that regulation must now adapt and support innovation –rather than it be chiseled in stone and the innovation adapt around it.

We live in a time of change and financial innovation is happening at a dizzying speed, faster and more extensive than at any time in history – let alone living memory.

Is there someone out there who can both do the tough but basic stuff, or better still rely on and direct a deputy for it, and get his/her head around the really big stuff? Not just the stuff that is regulated, or needs it, but the innovations that create the environment in which that now happens. The world as it is and will be, rather than as it has been in the past.

I believe there are. But you’ll not find them among the usual, institutional and/or institutionalised suspects. If the UK is to fulfil anything like David Cameron and Osborne’s aspiration of being not just the best place to start a business, but the leader as the world is re-made by fintech and the crowd, this had better be a more imaginative and radical appointment than that. The FCA as an organisation has all the starch and focus on the letter and details one could wish for.

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This job now needs someone who’s able to grasp the big picture and the changes and opportunities (including for better rather than just more or less regulation) that it brings. Rather than just balancing opposing forces, an impossible task in this environment at this time, they need to be able to go beyond it all by using the elbow room that freedoms afforded by this new territory offer to help craft a new analysis, and from that a new synthesis.

This is a big task and it needs not just a world class brain but experience, of the right kind, and character too. In spades. Someone who cares about the future at least as much as their own personal career and enrichment.

That will be a very tall order, indeed. Especially as attracting such a character to such a job, rather than appointing the more pliant among the usual suspects, will be far from easy.

But if the UK really wants to lead the world in the 21st century, host the innovations that are going to remake finance and the world, then it is a must. So my advice to the chancellor, and those advising him and the other involved in this process is: take a moment for this big decision. The next decade is going to be quite a ride and you really do want the right sort of person at the driving wheel of this one.