Less could mean more from EU regulators

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Fewer new financial sector rules from the EC might sound like a welcome respite, but it is not the same thing as no new rules.

It’s hard to see how bankers can draw much comfort from the European Commission’s announcement in December that it is to issue fewer new rules over the next five years.

Fewer new rules might sound like a welcome respite but it is not the same thing as no new rules.

Not all rule changes are equally painful. The amount of rest will depend heavily on what new rules the EU will seek to introduce. Rating agencies and financial analysts might have been promised a respite but still on the cards are new laws to open up markets such as clearing and settlement and mortgages.

Although any change to clearing and settlement rules alone might be beneficial in the long run, it will be enormously disruptive to securities market participants and is bound to provoke heated debate. It would also probably be very expensive, at least in the short term.

Everyone agrees that clearing and settlement is undesirably fragmented but there is no consensus on how to resolve the situation.

The EC is also keen to issue new proposals on investment funds and retail finance. Brussels wants to encourage union-wide competition and high levels of consumer protection. These are good aims, but any regulatory change in these areas would be sure to affect far more market participants and private citizens than any legislation on rating agencies.

Banks have plenty of catching up to do already. Basle II, the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive (Mifid), and the Single European Payments Area (Sepa) project, are all transformational changes. They are also all imminent realities that must be faced up to.

The fact that the EC’s first priority will be to ensure that existing rules are enforced should guarantee many sleepless nights.