What an unholy row! The unseemly spectacle of India’s two financial sector regulators locking horns in public, and sparring with flailing fists, can only spell disaster for the country’s financial sector and its “orderly” development.
These two regulators should also realize that, with this spat, they have played into the hands of the government. It is well known that North Block in New Delhi, which houses the Finance Ministry, is keen to play mid-wife to the birth of a new super-regulator for the financial sector.
Pranab-babu’s Budget speech in February had promised a new super-regulator for the financial sector but was conspicuously silent on the details. Since then speculation has mounted about this new creature and its genetic make-up. The latest spat between securities markets watchdog Sebi and the insurance regulator, Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority, has now fuelled rumours that the ministry might use this seemingly intractable row to insert itself and lay the foundations for a government controlled super-regulator. SEBI and IRDA will then have to report to this new organization.
It is strange that such a disagreement was not sorted out in the High Level Coordination Committee on Financial Markets, an informal body created to specifically sort out similar issues of turf between different regulators. In fact, the coordinated action by Reserve Bank of India and Sebi recently against Bank of Rajasthan proves that this apex level committee can stymie designs of those who want to profit from regulatory arbitrage. However, there could be one possible weakness: this organization lacks legislative teeth. Various committees have recommended that the HLCC should either be given legislative powers or a super-regulator be set up.
This has become necessary since institutional activities and products increasingly straddle multiple markets today. Also, as the recent crisis has shown, achieving overall financial stability – which means ensuring that risks in each and every part of the inter-connected financial system are within manageable limits – has now been accorded greater importance than ensuring the stability of the banking system alone. And, it is believed that a super-regulator with a 30,000-feet-helicopter-view alone can perform this job. But, the important question that arises is: is the government the right agency to undertake this responsibility? And, if all the regulators in the financial system are to report to this omniscient regulator, what are the consequences?
Conclusion: there should be a widespread debate before finalizing the DNA structure of the yet-to-be-born institution.