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Comparative Legal Traditions
University of Trieste
20 April 2016
The power of Soft Law
How to regulate global financial markets with non-binding legal standards
Luca Amorello (ESRB Secretariat)
The views here expressed are mine and do not necessarily represent the views of the ESRB
• Soft Law and Financial Markets
• A possible definition of Soft Law
• The Global Financial System as a construction of Formal and Informal Rules
• The use of Soft Law in International Financial Regulation
• Why is Soft Law prevalent in Finance?
• Global bodies and International Institutions for Financial Stability
• The ‘European Systemic Risk Board’ as a case study
• The Hierarchical Structure of Financial Supervisors in Europe;
• Systemic Risk and Regulatory Framework;
• The Mandate of the ESRB: Macroprudential Policy & Financial Stability Oversight
• Legal instruments: Recommendations and Early Warnings
• The ‘Comply or explain mechanism’
• ‘The Power of Soft Law’ explained.
EFC Financial Stability
• The generic term soft law covers a wide range of instruments of different nature and
functions that make it very difficult to contain it within a single formula. It constitutes an
infinite variety. (T. Faiardo)
• In general, one can argue that Soft Law refers to rules that are neither strictly binding in
nature nor completely lacking legal significance. (Black’s law Dictionary)
• In the context of international law, soft law refers to guidelines, policy declarations or
codes of conduct which set standards of conduct. However, they are not directly
• One can also understand soft law as a composite network of policy statements couched
in the normative mood, where the expectations of international authorities and bodies are
publicly disclosed and communicated to market actors.
• Market actors are incentivized to comply with this informal legal layer as the policy
statements represent the new standards of the international economic order.
A possible definition of Soft Law
• National regulators and private market participants have developed an array of informal global
networks aimed at the creation of common cross-border formal and informal rules for disciplining
the global financial system.
• These networks ranged from private bodies, like ISDA and ICMA to more procedurally complex,
government-affiliated bodies staffed by national regulators, such as the BCBS, IOSCO and IAIS.
• For example, networks like BCBS, IOSCO, and IAIS are hybrid bodies that assembled central bank,
securities, and insurance regulators, respectively, to develop industry standards on a global, cross-
• These bodies reflect the persistent and dominant role of national authorities in directing financial
rulemaking, while permitting the informal development of common regulatory approaches, standards,
and principles on a transnational level.
• These bodies are ‘soft-law bodies’ as they lack legal personality, issue largely nonbinding standards,
and permit significant variations in implementation across jurisdictions.
• However, because these bodies bear the imprimatur of national authority, there is at least some
expectation that member nations will implement some version of the standards they promulgate.
See: Barr (2014)
The Global Financial System as a construction
of Formal and Informal Rules
• Best practices in contemporary global finance have not emerged through positive, prescriptive
lawmaking within a single, hegemonic nation-state and the de facto export of that nation’s regulatory
standards to the rest of the world.
• International financial standards are even less likely to be developed through a rigid process of formal
lawmaking within a treaty-based international organization.
• Instead, the decentralized network of global financial actors with diverse, broadly distributed
responsibilities engages in cycles of reciprocity and retaliation as a cooperative method of
developing international financial law. Over the long run, uncooperative, self-interested regulators
can expect to lose the assistance of other actors within the international financial system.
• The enforcement mechanisms of international financial law closely resemble the reputational tools
that financiers, traders, and other private actors routinely use to patrol self-dealing and enforce socially
beneficial norms within their own communities.
• The thin shell of hard formality in international financial law adds the threat of institutional sanctions,
such as the denial or withdrawal of membership in an international organization. .
See: Chen (2011)
The use of Soft Law in International Financial Regulation
• To sum up:
“International financial regulation is mainly a system of “soft law” – meaning standards, guidelines,
interpretations and other statements that are not directly binding and enforceable in accordance with
formal techniques of international law but nevertheless capable of exerting powerful influence over the
behaviour of countries, public entities and private parties”.
• There are several reasons for that:
International organisations, in particular the IMF and World Bank, can exert pressure on countries to
adopt internationally-recognised standards and codes by using them as benchmarks in
international assessments and reporting on the extent to which countries observe them.
A state’s compliance with “best practice” international standards can result in lower funding costs
for its sovereign debt and more favourable financing terms for its financial institutions.
Market incentive-related reasons may lead banks and other regulated firms to adopt soft international
standards, even when the country in which they are based has not implemented them, because they will
want to signal to the global market that they adhere to the latest, most sophisticated models that have
received the approval of the FSB and other international bodies.
Why is Soft Law prevalent in Finance?
Soft law expands the international regulatory toolkit. Hard law ordinarily gives rise to
enforceable obligations and therefore has to be reasonably certain and predictable so that people
can determine what is expected of them.
Soft law, not being directly enforceable, can be more open-textured. This means that some
international standards may be articulated at too high a level of generality to be immediately
operational and will need to be supplemented by more detailed rules enacted at national or
supranational level to make the position more concrete and to ensure practical effectiveness.
Soft institutions are often praised for their flexible decision-making structures. Often comprised of
a limited number of participants, they are seen to be able to react quickly to changing
circumstances, which, in a field as dynamic as international financial market regulation, can be a
particularly valuable characteristic.
These institutional features lead into a further perceived advantage of the soft law concept, namely,
that it is a mechanism that can be superior to hard law-making processes in meeting the need
for regulation that can be changed and adapted in response to the ever-evolving, highly complex
interactions of the modern world.
The capacity for soft law to be changed more easily than hard law may foster willingness to “try out”
regulatory innovations in circumstances of uncertainty; if the experiment “works”, this can, in
turn, lead to a stabilisation of expectations in that area.
Global bodies and International Institutions
for Financial Stability
The ‘European Systemic Risk Board’ as a case study
• In the aftermath of the financial crisis, steps are being taken to harden some aspects of financial
supervision and also to confer legal enforceability on standards developed by supervisors rather than by
the EU institutions. The financial crisis has created political momentum for reforming the structure
of European financial supervision and regulation.
• The European Systemic Risk Board is part of the new supervisory structure. The ESRB's role is to
monitor and assess systemic risks – individual banks and the whole European financial system.
• What is systemic risk?
‘Systemic Risk’ means a risk of disruption in the financial system with the potential to have serious
negative consequences for the internal market and the real economy. All types of financial
intermediaries, markets and infrastructure may be potentially systemically important to some degree.
• As a soft law body without legally-binding powers, the ESRB structure finds a way around the strict
limits on the powers that can be delegated to regulatory agencies in the current Union legal order. These
limits are that agencies cannot be empowered to adopt general legislative acts and cannot be
granted decision-making power in areas in which they would have to arbitrate between
conflicting public interests, exercise political discretion or carry out complex economic
Systemic Risk and Regulatory Framework
• The ESRB is responsible for the so called macro-prudential oversight of the financial system within
the Union in order to contribute to the prevention or mitigation of systemic risks to financial stability
in the Union that arise from developments within the financial system and taking into account macro-
economic developments, so as to avoid periods of widespread financial distress. It shall contribute to
the smooth functioning of the internal market and thereby ensure a sustainable contribution of the
financial sector to economic growth.
• The tasks conferred on the ESRB cover:
– data collection and analysis;
– systemic risk assessment and prioritisation;
– issuing systemic risk warnings and recommendations for remedial action and monitoring follow-
– issuing confidential warnings to the Council of impending emergencies;
– co-operating closely with the other parties in the ESFS and working with the ESAs in the
development of quantitative and qualitative indicators to identify and measure systemic risk;
– coordinating with international institutions and relevant bodies in third countries on matters
related to macro-prudential oversight; and other related tasks as specified in EU legislation.
The Mandate of the ESRB: Macroprudential Policy &
Financial Stability Oversight
• The ESRB is empowered to issue general or specific warnings, or recommendations
addressed to the Union as a whole, to one or more Member States, to one or more of the
ESAs, or to one or more national supervisory authorities. Recommendations may also be
addressed to the Commission in respect of EU legislation.
• The ESRB may not address financial firms directly: that remains the responsibility of
Member States, under the oversight of the ESAs.
• Although ESRB recommendations and warnings are not binding in themselves, there is
considerable indirect reinforcement.
• First, there is a specific “act or explain” obligation on all recipients of ESRB
recommendations. If the ESRB is dissatisfied with the action taken or the explanation
for inaction, it can refer the matter to the Council, the Chair of the European
Parliament’s Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee and, where relevant, the
Legal instruments: Recommendations and Early Warnings
Do EU countries comply with ESRB Recommendations?
• The power of soft law in finance lies into a “Name and Shame” mechanism.
• This power has considerable potential force notwithstanding the fact that it is a
• If a country does not comply with a Soft Law measure which is recognized by
the financial community as badly needed market-destabilising effects of public
announcements can occur. This is particularly true for Sovereigns and National
• And this also explains why International financial law departs from
traditional public international law. The informal rules in finance can in fact
be ‘harder’ than its soft-law quality suggests. Although non-binding these rules
are able to influence market behaviors and discipline financial interactions.
• This feature helps explain why international financial rules, though technically
non-binding, are often relied upon.
‘The Power of Soft Law’ explained
• Michael S. Barr (2014) Who's in Charge of Global Finance? Geo. J. Int'l L. 45, no. 4 (2014):
• Chris Brummer (2011) Soft Law and the Global Financial System
Rule Making in the 21st Century, Cambridge University Press.
• Rolf H. Weber and Dominic N. Staiger (2014) Financial Stability Board: Mandate and
Implementation of Its Systemic Risks Standards. Int. J. Financial Stud. 2014, 2, 82–102
• Eilis Ferran & Kern Alexander (2011) Can Soft Law Bodies be Effective? Soft Systemic Risk
Oversight Bodies and the Special Case of the European Systemic Risk Board. University of
Cambridge Paper No.36/2011.
• Michaela Posch and Remco Van der Molen (2012) The macro-prudential mandate of
national authorities. ESRB Macroprudential Commentaries, Issue No. 2.