Australia is this week absorbing the final report of the Royal Commission into 'misconduct in the banking, superannuation and financial services industry'.
What is at the heart of the disregard shown by retail banks and finance houses for regulation aimed at protecting consumers from the excesses of the pursuit of profit motive?
As ANU's John Braithwaite has said, a core dilemma of regulation is "when to punish and when to persuade" (1992+).
Command and control-style punishment and sanctions are not the only way to regulate. There are many reasons for non-compliance, suggesting that regulators sometimes need to preference dialogue and engagement over knee-jerk automatic punishment. There is a strong case to be made for regulatory designs and institutional approaches that privilege engagement, persuasion, education, capacity-building. Braithwaite's 'responsive regulation' theory would suggest that regulators hold punitive powers in reserve while making overtures to regulatees and seeing how they respond to non-punitive approaches. The regulator then adjusts its own approach. This will be perceived, the theory goes, as more fair and so legitimate. Entities will internalise the regulatory goal, compliance will improve and the regulator can let compliant entities essentially self-regulate, and indeed exceed what is required in pursuit of the social goal underlying the regulation.
What is a lesson from the Royal Commission?
It is that this approach, as influential as it has been, needs to be revisited. Or at least the theory needs to be fully implemented if it is to work. Not surprising, that.
The lesson is that regulators -- even where they have these powers -- appear reluctant to use them, and so err on the side of 'engagement' where sometimes demonstrative penalty seems more appropriate. The issue is whether the regulated entities are responding to signals to change. If they are not, another more intrusive approach is warranted from the regulator.
Standing back, the key word is in the first sentence above: motive.
Incentives matter: we can talk all we want about 'values not just value' and 'engendering a shift in corporate culture'. But when all is said and done, market actors respond to incentives, and clear, credible and consistent signals and actions from regulators about the consequences of non-compliance.
And those consequences sometimes need to be severe.
As Commissioner Hayne wrote, "misconduct will be deterred only if entities believe that misconduct will be detected, denounced and justly punished..." It is not deterred -- for such profitable entities -- by requiring those found to have done wrong to "do no more than pay compensation." It is certainly not deterred by the issue of infringement notices in the hope that the market or consumers will respond to those incidents by withdrawing or conditioning their custom or financing.
Responsive regulation remains a highly appealing theory, if properly implemented. It is bound to fail -- as Braithwaite and his disciples have always said -- if only partially implemented. If all the cuddly dialogic bits are followed, but not the hard and punitive bits. Regulators can and should talk to their regulatees about how to improve compliance. But they are not mere consultants to business. They are regulators. Braithwaite would insist that the regulatee must know that the regulator can escalate things, where fair and appropriate and where there is no response to overtures to comply. They must know and see that the regulator can make life very difficult.
As Braithwaite once wrote, dialogue, engagement and capacity building must take place "in the shadow of the axe".
Australian regulators need to have the axe, even if they need to be smart and fair about when to keep it in the background and pursue a more engaged approach.
This is true from banking conduct in the retail sector, to emerging models on supply chain reporting in the context of modern slavery, on which see earlier posts on this blog.