Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Complacency is an occupational hazard for all big organisations. And no organisations are bigger than Big Government.

According to Lord Sutherland, whose damning report on the SATs fiasco has just been published, complacency was a serious problem at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA). As he puts it:

"There was a culture within the [QCA] that it would be alright on the night."

We come across this culture right across Whitehall – an unwillingness to recognise and grip problems early on, and an assumption that “muddle through” will somehow produce an acceptable result on the night.

And it isn’t confined to the UK government – it’s endemic in governments right around the world.

Take, for example, the latest revelations about the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). It seems they failed spectacularly to regulate Mr Madeoffwithyourmoney. According to the head of the SEC himself, "credible and specific allegations" about Madoff had been "repeatedly" brought to the attention of the SEC, yet no investigations were ordered.

Why? This may turn out to be the biggest Wall Street scam ever, but it was hardly novel. The regulators should have been fully aware of how Ponzi schemes work, yet they did nothing. They simply assumed that everything would somehow be alright on the night.

Our own sweet financial regulator has been even more complacent. The Treasury Select Committee said the FSA had been so complacent during the go-go markets, it had been asleep at the wheel, and the FSA’s own report on its feeble attempts to regulate the Crock admits as much (see this blog).

Central bankers have done little better. Alan Greenspan’s memoir The Age of Turbulence was written just before the financial crisis broke, and it is stuffed full of complacent statements about how bank shareholders could be relied upon to rein in excessive risk taking, and how complex derivatives are a force for good.

But at least Greenspan has had the integrity to admit publicly that he was wrong. Others have not been so forthcoming about their own pre-crisis complacency. Take the Dear Leader – as the FT Westminster blog brilliantly reminded us yesterday, right up until the moment the balloon went pop, Brown was complacently lecturing us about how he’d abolished housing bubbles and boom ‘n’ bust. And unless I missed it, there’s been no retraction, still less an apology.

So why is Big Government so complacent?

We all know why.

It isn’t just that it’s Big.

It’s because it is a monopoly supplier of everything from financial regulation to state exams. It can afford a degree of complacency that would sink a commercial firm.

PS The Madoff saga – indeed much of the current banking crisis – has a huge ring of familiarity. Here we have senior bankers and fund managers who poured billions into an operation that they did not understand, purely on the basis that it was making money. It is precisely how the top management of Barings busted their bank only a little over a decade ago.


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