White collar crime has dominated UK news headlines in the past couple of weeks. First, there were the arrests and revelations concerning FIFA. This led David Cameron to urge the G7 to root out corruption wherever it exists, in his speech to their Bavarian summit last weekend. Then, just a few days later, the Bank of England released the conclusions of its Fair and Effective Markets Review (FEMR), gaining headlines about how rogue bankers in future face 10 years in prison.
This approach fits a pattern in recent years of the UK sounding tough on white collar crime.
In 2011, the UK introduced the Bribery Act, one of the toughest pieces of anti-corruption legislation in the world. Much broader in effect than even the feared US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, it catches commercial bribery as well as the bribery of public officials, bans facilitation payments and makes companies liable unless they can show they had adequate procedures in place to prevent bribery.
Corruption isn't the only area where the UK likes to sound tough. We currently take our anti-money laundering regime from the EU, which is already broader and tougher than the equivalents in many other regions. However, the UK is proposing to go further. A beneficial ownership register for companies is to be introduced from January 2016, to assist in the fight against money laundering.
In its response to financial scandals such as LIBOR and FX-rigging, the UK has also already gone further than most other countries. We already have new laws prohibiting, for example, benchmark manipulation. On Wednesday, Mark Carney took that further, extending the market abuse regime to spot FX and trumpeting the fact that sentences for rogue bankers would increase to 10 years.
Look behind the headlines, though, and a rather different picture emerges.
Since it came into force in July 2011, there have been hardly any prosecutions under the Bribery Act. The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) has only secured convictions in one case – last year, in the Sustainable AgroEnergy Plc case. There have been no high profile scalps as yet.
On money laundering, the landscape is more worrying. The National Crime Agency (NCA), the body responsible for enforcing UK anti-money laundering laws, estimates that £100 billion of corrupt foreign money is laundered in the UK each year. Yet, in a report this week (available here), Transparency International (TI) reported that whilst 14,000 suspicious activity reports were filed last year, only seven transactions were actually stopped.
So are the FEMR changes likely to make a difference in the financial services sector? The fear must be that they will not, not least because the report says nothing about increased funding for enforcement.
The reality is that the UK can sound as tough as it likes on white collar crime, but it does not invest anywhere near enough for effective enforcement.
The SFO may have a chequered history in terms of results, but even its most ardent critics recognise it has been chronically under-funded for years. Its budget fell from £52 million in 2008 to £35.2 million for the 2014/15 financial year. For this year, it has had to ask for a huge increase in funding to be able to continue with some of its probes. For FX, it has had to rely on an ad hoc Government funding commitment.
As the TI report makes clear, although new tools would help the NCA, it also desperately lacks the resources needed to address a challenge of the scale it faces.
It cannot help that the SFO and the NCA have a potential reorganisation hanging over them. In October last year, the current Home Secretary revealed plans to look again at rolling the SFO into the NCA to create an "FBI-style" agency. That approach had been considered and discounted only three years earlier.
The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), which enforces the market abuse regime, is potentially different. It is funded by the financial services industry and enjoys a budget that other UK agencies can only dream of. But does it have the will to take a tougher line? It already has powers to prosecute market abuse, but it hardly ever exercises them. Why would it, when there is an equivalent civil offence? It can bring a civil claim instead, which means it has to meet a lower (and therefore easier) standard of proof, and then fine and ban the trader anyway.
There may even be questions over the FCA's resources to prosecute rogue bankers more widely. For example, look at the number of traders mentioned in the final notices the FCA has issued so far in respect of the FX scandal. Prosecuting them would be an enormous task, require a large team and very significant funding. But, anecdotally we hear that a lack of resources has already forced the FCA to scale back the FX remediation plan it announced in the wake of the first final notices, back in November last year.
It is of course a good thing that the UK leads the world in legislating to prevent and deter white collar crime. But there's little point in having the toughest laws in the world if you don't enforce them. Unless and until the UK starts funding enforcement properly, the world is entitled to treat our efforts, and Mr Cameron's encouragement, sceptically.