Saturday, 1 August 2009

FSA mute commentators

If admitting mistakes is a crucial step in the healing and learning process then the Financial Services Authority will never heal nor learn. They are supposed to be the guardians of our financial sector but have failed to admit their part in the demise of Scotland oldest and biggest building society - the Dunfermline.

There are strongly competing claims about whether the Society could have been saved earlier this year.

The advocates for survival claimed that the over stringent capital adequacy requirements combined with the short sited Treasury which didn't recognise the society's importance to confidence in the 'safe' mutual sector meant it was sacrificed. They point to the recent West Bromwich solution as the model that could have been adopted for the Dunfermline.

The Treasury believed that the society would not have been able to service any injection of capital and was not sufficiently important to the financial sector to warrant an investment of public funds to keep it an independent Scottish mutual. They also point to the partially failed IT system which cost the society dear with millions being written off.

To me it's quite clear that the damage was done between 2005 and 2007 when the society diversified into more risky ventures including commercial lending, buy to let mortgages and second hand mortgages. Yet all this was done with the knowledge and acceptance of the Financial Services Authority.

In fact the FSA recommended the services of an independent expert to review their commercial lending portfolio. I assume, because it is not said, that the FSA were satisfied with outcome of that experts report because no action/recommendations were made following the report. That's when the damage was done - and yet the FSA was just a blind observer and mute commentator.

The society's management admitted their mistakes, not just as some means to deflect any further criticism but because they truly cared for the institution that they devoted many years of their lives to and wanted to explain what went wrong.

The Scottish Affairs Select Committee report into the break up of the society is a good report. It would have been even better if it had also taken evidence from members and staff from the society and senior executives like Peter Weanie who was a driving force behind the more risky strategy. But it was a good report none the less and should help members, staff and the wider community understand what happened so we can learn and move on with the Nationwide.

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