NZ Herald business editor at large

Liam Dann: Plucking the low fruit first makes good sense

The FMA is tackling the low-hanging fruit while preparing for the more high-profile cases. Photo / APN
The FMA is tackling the low-hanging fruit while preparing for the more high-profile cases. Photo / APN

Almost six weeks after it sprang into being, the Financial Markets Authority has proved it isn't planning to muck around.

There are high hopes that this agency, with increased powers, will do a better job than its predecessor, the Securities Commission, and clean up financial sector shenanigans that resulted in thousands of investors being burned over the past five years.

Chief executive Sean Hughes yesterday announced a major restructuring of senior management positions at the FMA.

He is also cutting the budget for some of the staff perks that it appears those at the Securities Commission had grown accustomed to.

So no more free massages and more modest spending on flowers for the office and after-work drinks.

It's hardly sackcloth and ashes but you get the feeling that, more than just wanting to trim the annual budget, Hughes is keen to send a message to staff that there is a new regime and with it a new approach to the business of policing financial markets.

In fact the FMA is proving extremely deft at sending messages.

This week it sent a warning to KiwiSaver sales people it perceives to be using illegal tactics.

Specifically, Hughes has targeted a bloke called Patrick Diack who, it is alleged, was hanging around outside Work and Income offices, offering people $10 to sign up to the scheme.

Diack feels he has been unfairly picked on by the agency. He says he's out of business and now has to join the dole queue himself.

Previously the agency used new powers to target Bernard Whimp, who mailed out low-ball share offers to large numbers of investors.

He made a lot of money buying and cashing in the shares of the naive and uninformed investors who accepted.

The FMA demanded that he include a disclaimer with the market share price prominently displayed and this effectively put Whimp out of business too.

So is that two wins or is the FMA just taking a heavy-handed approach to small-fry cases?

Sceptics will note that the FMA has yet to complete inquiries into two of the largest financial failures in recent years - Hanover Finance and the Alan Hubbard empire.

The agency has inherited files on both of these cases from the Securities Commission.

Inevitably, there is impatience from the public (and probably Hubbard and Hanover directors such as Mark Hotchin) to find out if charges will be laid.

The handover of regimes from the commission to the FMA has no doubt slowed the process but, given the complexity involved in both cases, there is little to be gained by rushing a decision at this point.

And while the legal experts dissect these high-profile cases, the FMA's approach in tackling the little guys hard and publicly makes a lot of sense.

Yes, it is low-hanging fruit, but every time that fruit is picked the agency sends a strong message to others in the industry that it has a low tolerance for those who break the rules or who push the boundaries of what is fair practice.

The big finance company cases will still provide the FMA with an acid test but in the meantime one of the goals of the market regulator is to create an environment in which the public feel they are being looked out for.

Hughes seems acutely aware of this and is using every tool at his disposal to do that.

- NZ Herald

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NZ Herald business editor at large

Liam Dann is business editor at large at the New Zealand Herald. He has been a journalist for 20 years, covering business for the last 14 of them. He has also worked in the banking sector in London and travelled extensively. His passion is for Markets and Economics, because they are the engine of the New Zealand economy. He hosts The Economy Hub video show every Thursday.

Read more by Liam Dann

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