GoJIL Vol. 11, No. 1 (2021)
The Soft Touch of International Financial Regulation: Status, Flaws and Future
The 2008 global financial crisis focused attention on the relationship between the behaviour of international financial institutions and the rules they follow. Many banks in the US and Europe failed, in part, due to their inability to absorb the fallout of the US mortgage market collapse. If international financial institutions could not protect themselves from the cycles of the market, how come regulators were unable to do so either? The most relevant instrument of international financial regulation for understanding the 2008 crisis is the Basel Accords, the rules that specify how much capital a bank should always hold in reserve. However, these rules are ‘soft law’ and so, non-binding. It is a myth of course that soft law is the only way to regulate international finance, as many scholars argue. Despite numerous rounds of reform, the Basel Accords have always been inadequate. The purpose of this paper is to account for the flaws of the Basel Accords and the role that soft law plays in creating those flaws. This paper also analyses the competing theories behind the rise of soft law within financial regulation and the ‘political economy’ explanation is endorsed. The final section of the paper discusses the future of financial regulation and soft law, as well as highlighting innovations from outside the hard/soft law dichotomy and outside the Global North. This paper concludes by stating that the theory behind soft law does not play out in practice within finance and that it remains in place because it suits the interests of large institutions and powerful states. At the same time, a return to Bretton Woods or a new World Financial Organization is problematic and, as such, we must look beyond the hard/soft law debate and embrace the work of the Global South and East.
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