Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Rules and regulations

Regulation has been in the spotlight for many months. Has there been too little or too much? Has it been misdirected? Has it just failed to be properly followed and enforced?

On the right of the political spectrum we tend to believe market forces are sufficient to regulate bad practice. But in the recent banking fiasco trust in self-correcting markets failed because the toxic elements seemed on the surface to be invisible.

On Saturday evening I began to suffer from a bout of food poisoning. Perhaps I'm particularly prone, but I seem to succumb to these painfully toxic events two or three times every year.

The first target on which I pinned the blame was a mini pork pie bought at M&S Brent Cross that afternoon, which settled in my stomach like a lead balloon.

However, health regulators say they rarely accept consumers' own attribution of the cause of their pain. The most common food bacteria take 8 to 72 hours to multiply in the gut before they start producing their unpleasant symptoms.

This would mean that the most likely cause of my toxic gut was the flame-grilled chicken burger served on a heavy wooden board that I enjoyed in the sunshine outside a small north London bistro on Friday afternoon.

Marketeers say that the larger the retailer the more we can trust the quality of its products. Bad publicity can do far more damage to a business with many outlets than to a small individual retailer catering to passing trade.

The toxic element in the trades widely engaged in by the banking industry originated with nameless hedge fund operatives inventing faulty risk algorithms that were then endorsed by supplicant credit rating agencies. Thus the health properties of the derivative products that then flooded financial markets were never questioned. And regulators fell into line with the apparent market wisdom that all would be fine.

The lesson seems to be that the precautionary principle is a good one. But we need regular reminders that the best precautions involve considering and applying fundamentally basic rules, even when we don't expect market failures.

If the staff at the bistro I attended had followed the basic hygiene regulations they had surely been taught, I wouldn't now be suffering the toxic consequences of their omissions.

Market forces will produce a correction in the end. But to avoid the interim outbreaks of unforeseen pain, people simply need to stick to obvious, sensible rules.

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