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Some USDA programs have been mired in inequity. A panel's final report offers changes

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Some USDA programs have been mired in inequity. A panel's final report offers changes

Handy Kennedy, founder of AgriUnity cooperative, counts his cows on HK Farms on April 20, 2021 in Cobbtown, Ga. The cooperative is a group of Black farmers formed to better their chances of success by putting their resources together to reduce their overhead costs.

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Handy Kennedy, founder of AgriUnity cooperative, counts his cows on HK Farms on April 20, 2021 in Cobbtown, Ga. The cooperative is a group of Black farmers formed to better their chances of success by putting their resources together to reduce their overhead costs.

Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

An equity commission created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture has released over 60 recommendations it says will finally bring more fairness to policies affecting farming and rural America.

The department has sprawling oversight of policies affecting not just farming subsidies but widely utilized nutrition assistance programs and rural development projects, such as utilities, broadband and homebuilding.

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“Many of the issues and recommendations we identified are not new,” wrote the commission’s leaders, United Farm Workers President Emeritus Arturo Rodriguez and Ertharin Cousin, former U.S. Ambassador for Food Security and executive director of the U.N. World Food Programme, in the commission’s final report released Thursday. “However, they will require renewed commitment from USDA to improve its customer-facing business processes and address historical inequities whose impacts continue to the present moment.”

This final report builds on interim recommendations the commission made last year when it released a preliminary set of 32 changes it believed USDA could get a head start on, including making it easier for farmers to qualify for conservation programs and making the language more accessible.

“It’s not easy to look at mistakes head on and recognize where we miss the mark, but the Equity Commission is driving that work at USDA,” said Agriculture Deputy Secretary Torres Small, the first Latina in the position. “Secretary Vilsack and former Deputy Secretary Jewel Bronaugh started the Equity Commission to build a more equitable and fair future for everyone who participates in agriculture. Today is a momentous day as we receive the final report, recognize the crucial efforts of each member of our Equity Commission and Subcommittees, and commit to the work ahead.”

What does the commission recommend?

The USDA Equity Commission was born from a Biden executive order in 2022 — and subsequent congressional funding — calling for federal departments to address racial equity and underserved communities. It was originally spearheaded by former USDA Deputy Secretary Bronaugh until her departure last February. She was the first Black woman to hold such a high role in the department.

The group met last fall to vote on 66 recommendations that touch on many of the issues that have placed the department at the forefront of national conversations, such as concerns over Chinese ownership of U.S. farmland and equity access issues for low-interest farming loans. The recommendations range from the care of farmworkers to the implementation of nutrition assistance programs and increasing the development of housing.

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Among the commission’s newest recommendations include:

  • amend a USDA rural housing program’s policies to be more open to alternative and innovative forms of housing construction, like 3D printed and modular; 
  • eliminate the current “one-and-done” funding stipulation that disqualifies rural communities from receiving access to more broadband expansion grants and low interest loans to support broadband — and allow additional USDA funding for communities where broadband does not currently meet the federally established standard;
  • conduct outreach and support small businesses, especially those owned by underrepresented communities in becoming approved SNAP vendors and maintaining eligibility — and support innovative approaches to improving access in food/SNAP access deserts and promoting local food systems;
  • implement proposed changes to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) food packages to better support access to culturally appropriate foods;
  • add the USDA secretary as a permanent member of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which has the authority to review, approve, or deny any proposed U.S. land purchases by those in other countries that might raise national concerns;
  • ensure equitable funding to community-led land access and transition projects by making funding available as a line of credit or grant prior to purchase.

There are also dozens more recommendations that range from supporting efforts that help create a pathway to citizenship for farmworkers, conducting research into how USDA’s various grant and loan programs are run, advising on where to expand staffing if given the funds from Congress, expanding language access for USDA programs and more.

The report attempts to tackle a broader discriminatory past

President Biden campaigned in part on the promise that he would bring equity to agriculture and rejuvenate rural economies. After last year’s interim report, USDA hired and established its first chief diversity and inclusion officer and touted its expanded outreach with Tribal nations, its climate justice initiatives and its new effort to help those with limited English proficiency access USDA programs and resources as well as its informational materials for noncitizens.

Nearly two decades ago a class action lawsuit led by Black farmers against the USDA was settled. Then there was a class action from Native Americans, Hispanic farmers, and women farmers. Even after lawsuits from minority groups, many others, including smaller farmers as well as young and beginning farmers, say they are constantly left out of USDA’s programs and structure.

They say barriers to access to programs include incorrect denials, cumbersome paperwork and a lack of clear communication about what applicants could qualify for to begin with.

In fact, an NPR analysis from last year found across the first two years of the Biden administration, Black and Asian-identifying farmers were the least successful in acquiring a direct loan, data shows.

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Advocates for farmers of color have argued that rejections and withdrawals often happen because the multi-step application process is too cumbersome and confusing. Those whose families have generational experience and long-standing outside resources to navigate the federal bureaucracy sail through. And this lack of access is credited as one of the reasons for a sharp decline in particularly Black-owned farmland over the last centuries.

In the final report, the equity commission makes recommendations to address some of the language barriers, credit barriers and issues proving generational landownership that have also resulted in discrimination.

Though USDA has tried to emphasize working with these often-left-out groups, criticism has continued. A race-targeted program to cancel the debt of farmers of color was made race-neutral after lawsuits backed by conservative outfits stalled the program in courts. A $3 billion program aimed to help farmers and ranchers reduce their emissions has an equity portion, but USDA continues to face distrust.

Congress has also allocated $2.2 billion for USDA to pay farmers who can show they were discriminated against. Farmers had until earlier this month to apply.

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Is South Korea’s economic miracle over?

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Is South Korea’s economic miracle over?

Outside the town of Yongin, 40 kilometres south of Seoul, an army of diggers is preparing for what South Korea’s president has described as a global “semiconductor war”.

The diggers are moving 40,000 cubic metres of earth a day, cutting a mountain in half as they lay the foundations for a new cluster of chipmaking facilities that will include the world’s largest three-storey fabrication plant.

The 1,000-acre site, a $91bn investment by chipmaker SK Hynix, will itself only be one part of a $471bn “mega cluster” at Yongin that will include an investment of 300tn won ($220bn) by Samsung Electronics. The development is being overseen by the government amid growing anxiety that the country’s leading export industry will be usurped by rivals across Asia and the west.

“We will provide full support, together with SK Hynix, to ensure that our companies won’t fall behind in the global chip cluster race,” South Korea’s industry minister Ahn Duk-geun told SK Hynix executives during a meeting at the Yongin site last month.

Most industry experts agree the investments at Yongin are required for South Korean chipmakers to maintain their technological lead in cutting edge memory chips, as well as to meet booming future demand for AI-related hardware.

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But economists worry that the government’s determination to double down on South Korea’s traditional growth drivers of manufacturing and large conglomerates betrays an unwillingness or inability to reform a model that is showing signs of running out of steam.

Having grown at an average of 6.4 per cent between 1970 and 2022, the Bank of Korea warned last year that annual growth is on course to slow to an average of 2.1 per cent in the 2020s, 0.6 per cent in the 2030s, and to start to shrink by 0.1 per cent a year by the 2040s.

Pillars of the old model, such as cheap energy and labour, are creaking. Kepco, the state-owned energy monopoly that provides Korean manufacturers with heavily subsidised industrial tariffs, has amassed liabilities of $150bn. Of the other 37 OECD member countries, only Greece, Chile, Mexico and Colombia have lower workforce productivity.

Park Sangin, professor of economics at the graduate school of public administration at Seoul National University, notes that South Korea’s weakness in developing new “underlying technologies” — as opposed to its strength in commercialising technologies like chips and lithium-ion batteries invented in the US and Japan respectively — is being exposed as Chinese rivals close the innovation gap.

Arial view of the building site for the new megacluster of fabrication plants
Diggers are moving 40,000 cubic metres of earth a day as they lay the foundations for a new cluster of chipmaking facilities in Yongin © Yonhap/Newcom/Alamy Stock Photo

“Looking from the outside, you would assume that South Korea is extremely dynamic,” says Park. “But our economic structure, which is based on catching up with the developed world through imitation, hasn’t fundamentally changed since the 1970s.”

Worries about future growth have been exacerbated by an impending demographic crisis. According to the Korea Institute of Health and Social Affairs, the country’s gross domestic product will be 28 per cent lower in 2050 than it was in 2022, as the working age population shrinks by almost 35 per cent.

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“The Korean economy will face big challenges if we stick to the past growth model,” finance minister Choi Sang-mok told the Financial Times earlier this month.

Some hope that the expected global boom in AI will rescue the Korean semiconductor industry, and perhaps even the Korean economy at large, by offering solutions to the country’s productivity and demographic problems.

Column chart of South Korean population by age group (mn) showing The working age population is expected to fall 35 per cent by mid-century

But sceptics point to the country’s poor record in addressing challenges ranging from its plummeting fertility rate to its outdated energy sector to its underperforming capital markets.

That is unlikely to improve in the near future. Political leadership is split between a leftwing-controlled legislature and an unpopular conservative presidential administration, with the victory of leftwing parties in parliamentary elections earlier this month raising the prospect of more than three years of gridlock until the next presidential election in 2027.

“Korean industry is struggling to move on from the old model,” says Yeo Han-koo, a former South Korean trade minister now at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “It hasn’t worked out what comes next.”


One of the reasons why it is proving so hard to reform the “old model”, say economists, is because it has been so successful.

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The achievements of South Korea’s state-guided capitalism, which took it from an impoverished agrarian society to a technological powerhouse in less than half a century, have come to be known as the “miracle on the Han River”. In 2018, South Korea’s GDP per capita measured at purchasing power parity surpassed that of its former colonial occupier, Japan.

Line chart of GDP per head ($'000s in constant 2018 prices, at purchasing power parity) showing The South Korean miracle: living standards passed Japanese levels in 2018

Seungheon Song, managing partner of consultancy McKinsey’s practice in Seoul, notes that South Korea made two great leaps — one between the 1960s and the 1980s, when the country moved from basic goods to petrochemicals and heavy industry, and the second between the 1980s and 2000s, when it moved to high-tech manufacturing.

Between 2005 and 2022, however, only one new sector — displays — entered the country’s list of top ten export products. Meanwhile, South Korea’s lead in a range of critical technologies has dwindled. Having led the world in 36 of 120 priority technologies identified by the Korean government in 2012, by 2020 that number had dropped to just four.

Park says the country’s leading conglomerates, or chaebol, many of which are now overseen by the third generation of their founding families, have drifted from a “growth mindset” born of hunger towards an “incumbent mindset” born of complacency.

He argues that the present model reached its apogee in 2011, after a decade during which Korean tech exports were driven by the related twin demand shocks of the rise of China and the global technology boom, as well as by massive investments by Samsung and LG to seize control of the global display industry from their Japanese counterparts.

Since then, however, Chinese tech companies have caught up with their Korean competitors in almost every area except the most advanced semiconductors, meaning that Chinese companies that were once customers or suppliers have become rivals. Samsung and LG are fighting for survival in the global display industry they dominated just a few years ago.

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Goldstar Electronic manufacturing workers wearing special suits and masks as they test electronic equipment in 1987 in Busan, South Korea
Between the 1980s and 2000s, South Korea moved to high-tech manufacturing, completing its transformation from an impoverished agrarian society into a technological powerhouse © Bill Nation/Sygma/Getty Images

Park adds that many of the headline-grabbing gains made by the leading conglomerates have come at the expense of their domestic suppliers, who are subjected to price squeezing through exclusive contractual relationships.

The result is that small and medium enterprises, which employ more than 80 per cent of the South Korean labour force, have less money to invest in their employees or infrastructure, exacerbating low productivity, slowing innovation and stifling growth in the services sector.

“The rationale used to be that the chaebol should be sheltered from disruption at home so they can focus on disrupting rivals abroad,” says Park. “But now they are the incumbents, they are both stifling innovation at home and highly vulnerable to disruption themselves.”

The country’s two-tier economy, in which according to Park almost half of the country’s GDP was delivered by conglomerates that employed just 6 per cent of South Koreans in 2021, also feeds social and regional inequalities, which in turn feeds spiralling competition among young South Koreans for a small number of elite university places and high-paying jobs in and around Seoul.

That competition is helping drive down the country’s fertility rate even further as young Koreans wrestle with mounting academic, financial and social burdens. The country has the widest gender pay gap and the highest suicide rate in the OECD.

South Korea also has one of the highest rates of household debt as a proportion of GDP in the developed world, according to the Institute of International Finance. The average newly-wed couple in South Korea has combined debts of $124,000.

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Bar chart of Ratio of household debt to GDP (%), Q4 2023, selected economies showing South Korean households have very high levels of debt

While South Korea’s government debt to GDP is relatively low by western standards, at 57.5 per cent, the IMF forecasts that it will triple over the next 50 years in the absence of drastic pension reforms. Forty-six per cent of South Koreans are projected to be over the age of 65 by 2070, and the country already has the highest rate of elderly poverty in the developed world.

“Slowing growth has fed the declining birth rate, which will lead to even slower growth,” says Song of McKinsey. “We are in danger of getting stuck in a vicious circle.”


The Yongin mega cluster illustrates South Korea’s challenge in sustaining an economic model that was first developed at a time when the country was much poorer and less democratic.

The project was announced in 2019, but was delayed for several years due to wrangles over construction permits and the site’s water supply. Once the first cluster is completed in 2027 — more are planned for later — it will face a shortage of qualified labour. Without a sufficient supply of renewable energy, and without a bipartisan consensus on building new nuclear power plants, it is unclear how the cluster will be powered.

Despite the uncertainties that surround it, the plan reflects confidence that an expected boom in demand for AI-related hardware, including the Dram memory chips needed for large language models, will justify the titanic investments. Shares in SK Hynix have more than doubled over the past year amid investor excitement over its “high bandwidth memory” chips used with Nvidia’s cutting edge processors.

Ahn Ki-hyun, executive director of the Korea Semiconductor Industry Association, says the country needs to press on with the Yongin project as potential rivals are making their own large investments.

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He singles out the US and Japan’s efforts to revive their own chipmaking capabilities with generous subsidies. “We could lose our status as a chipmaking powerhouse if our companies continue to build plants abroad, but if facilities are concentrated in our own country, our competitiveness will increase,” he says.

Last week, Samsung announced a $45bn investment in Texas to meet expected AI-related chip demand, while SK Hynix is building a high bandwidth memory facility in Indiana.

A person with their back to the camera stands in front of an arrange of screens in the Samsung Electronics Innovation Museum
Samsung and LG are fighting for survival in the global display industry they dominated just a few years ago © SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

In the long term, however, executives worry about US rivals absorbing Korean knowhow, as well as the risk that the proliferation of chip clusters around the world will lead to chronic oversupply and inefficiencies that could further undermine profitability.

Samsung’s Texan investments, which have benefited from up to $6.4bn in federal subsidies from Washington, also highlight how the Korean government is struggling to match the incentives on offer in other countries.

Some see in the coming AI era an opportunity for South Korea to lift its sights beyond manufacturing and the preservation of its biggest players.

Sunghyun Park, chief executive of AI chip design start-up Rebellions, notes the country already has capabilities in three of the four pillars needed for AI — logic, memory, and cloud service providers — and now has the opportunity to secure reciprocal access to the world’s most sophisticated AI algorithms, the fourth pillar.

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“Our strength in hardware is important, but if we are to progress we need to move up the value chain into design and software,” says Park. “That means investing our money in strategic partnerships with the makers of the world’s leading large language models.”

Park’s argument resonates with those who worry that South Korea’s continued emphasis on manufacturing and hardware — both in the chip sector and beyond — will prove unsustainable as costs continue to rise.

But Inseong Jeong, a former SK Hynix engineer and author of The Future of Semiconductor Empires, a book about the Korean chip industry, says the country should focus on its existing strengths. “The world will always need hardware, and the world will always need chips.”

He adds that by remaining at the cutting edge of chip production, Korean companies will be more likely to benefit from future breakthroughs in AI.

“The moat between hardware and software is hard to cross, but it works both ways,” says Jeong. “For example, our memory chip companies would be the main beneficiaries of a breakthrough whereby AI chips would more closely resemble the workings of a human brain. There are no guarantees that AI will run on Nvidia GPUs forever.”

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Some observers regard warnings about South Korea’s economic future as overblown, noting that many western countries bitterly regret abandoning the kind of advanced manufacturing base that Seoul has managed to preserve.

An elderly South Korean woman walks past young students at a school
South Korea’s plummeting birth rate is projected to shrink the working age population by almost 35 per cent by 2050, leaving gross domestic product 28 per cent lower than in 2022 © Jung Yeon/AFP/Getty Images

The “tech war” between the US and China, they argue, is playing into Korean hands as Chinese rivals in the chip, battery and biotech sectors are restricted or barred from entry into growing western markets, while concern about Taiwan’s security feeds demand for Korean alternatives.

South Korean companies in areas ranging from defence and construction to pharmaceuticals, electric vehicles and entertainment, have shown themselves to be more adept than many of their western counterparts in reducing their exposure to the Chinese market and seeking out growth in south-east Asia, India, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.

The Bank of Korea has also said that the most doom-laden scenarios regarding the country’s demographic crisis and growth prospects can be alleviated by bringing the country up to the OECD average on a range of metrics, including urban population concentration and youth employment.

But others argue that while there is much that South Korea could and should do to alleviate its problems, its record on reform is poor.

Spending on private tuition continues to climb as competition for university places grows fiercer, while the fertility rate continues to fall. Pension, housing and medical sector reforms have stalled, while long-standing campaigns to curb the country’s dependence on the conglomerates, boost renewables, raise corporate valuations, close the gender pay gap, and make Seoul a leading Asian financial centre have all made little headway.

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But finance minister Choi retains his faith that the country’s economy can be reformed, insisting that “dynamism is embedded in the Korean DNA”.

“We need to redesign policies to unleash that economic dynamism again,” says Choi. “But the miracle isn’t over.”

Additional reporting by Song Jung-a

Data visualisation by Keith Fray

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Chicago police officer, 30, shot dead overnight while heading home from work: ‘Another sad day’

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Chicago police officer, 30, shot dead overnight while heading home from work: ‘Another sad day’

An off-duty Chicago cop was shot and killed as he came home from work early Sunday in what the police superintendent called “another sad day” for the Windy City.

Cops responded to a gunshot detection alert in the Gage Park neighborhood at about 3 a.m., according to a statement from police.

When officers arrived, they found one of their own — Luis M. Huesca, 30 — with several gunshot wounds, police and the mayor’s office said.

Chicago police officer Luis Hesuca was shot and killed while heading home from work. Chicago Police / YouTube

They rushed him to the University of Chicago Hospital, but the six-year department vet did not make it, according to NBC 5 Chicago.

“The officer was the victim of the type of crime that he was working against to keep people safe in this city,” police Superintendent Larry Snelling said. “Another sad day for the Chicago Police Department.”

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Crooks also stole Huesca’s car, but police wouldn’t confirm if the shooting was a result of a carjacking.

Police at the scene of the fatal shooting on the city’s southwest side on April 21, 2024. FOX 32 Chicago

Authorities didn’t offer a potential motive, and do not have a suspect in custody.

Snelling told reporters that Huesca — who was just a few days shy of his 31st birthday — was still in uniform but wore something over it, as is customary for off-duty cops.

He added that the slain cop was “just a great officer, a great human being,” according to NBC.

“We really need to keep the family, his mother, in our prayers,” Snelling said. “These are senseless, senseless crimes that have taken the lives of our community members, today one of our officers.

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“There are people who are brazen and cowardly in the way that they go about their days, and carry out these violent acts against decent, hard-working people in this city,” the superintendent continued. “We’re just trying to live their lives the right way.”

Mayor Brandon Johnson said he met with Huesca’s mom and uncle Sunday morning to assure them that they have “the full support of my administration as they deal with this unspeakable loss.

Huesca’s car was taken, but police would not confirm if he was targeted in a carjacking. WLS- TV

“No family or community should ever have to suffer such pain,” Johnson said in a statement, adding that the shooting was an “act of unconscionable gun violence,” according to NBC.

“Our city is grieving, and our condolences go out to their entire family as well as Luis’ fellow officers and community,” the mayor said.

The circumstances that led to the shooting are still unclear. Snelling said the police investigation is still in its infancy.

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On Sunday, detectives gathered at the scene to mark out spots and put evidence in plastic bags, the Chicago Tribune said.

The killing also terrified locals, who said Gage Park isn’t normally like that.

“The caution tape goes down two or three blocks,” resident Maria Jose told the Tribune in Spanish. “It’s usually so tranquil around here. I feel scared.”

Huesca is the third Chicago cop to be shot this year — and the first fatality, the Tribune said.

With Post wires

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FCA faces backlash over plan to ‘name and shame’ companies under investigation

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FCA faces backlash over plan to ‘name and shame’ companies under investigation

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The UK’s top financial regulator is facing a fierce backlash from the government and City executives over its plan to “name and shame” companies under investigation more frequently and at a much earlier stage.

The move has caused anger in ministerial circles, fuelling fears that the Financial Conduct Authority’s approach to regulation is harming the City of London and driving business abroad.

One senior government figure said: “The FCA says it’s thinking about competitiveness, but so often they take decisions that harm the competitiveness of the UK. They have got to stop. We can’t afford to do this any more as a country.”

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The FCA’s new approach, outlined in a consultation paper in February, aims to create more transparency concerning the watchdog’s enforcement work and to increase the deterrent effect such probes can have on the market.

The move has caused uproar among City lawyers who claim it could do significant damage to their clients both reputationally and financially, pointing to the fact that about 65 per cent of the agency’s investigations close without action.

Miles Celic, chief executive of TheCityUK, said: “The industry is opposed to the FCA’s proposal to name and shame financial services firms before the conclusion of enforcement investigations.

“This contradicts the fundamental legal principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ and risks undermining trust and confidence in the wider industry and the UK’s competitiveness.

“It would significantly and pointlessly damage a firm’s reputation and value, especially given that FCA investigations take four years on average and many conclude without requiring any action.”

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Ministers are reluctant to criticise regulators publicly, but frustration with the FCA is running high in Whitehall circles.

The Treasury said: “This is a matter for the FCA. However, we are engaging with both the FCA and industry as the proposals are developed, in particular to ensure that any potential impacts on competitiveness are properly considered.”

Last month Kemi Badenoch, business secretary and equalities minister, wrote to FCA chief executive Nikhil Rathi to accuse the agency of “regulatory over-reach” because of the introduction of a new regime on diversity and inclusion in the financial sector.

Badenoch this week said in a speech to City leaders: “I worry about the tendency to push for well-meaning but counter-productive measures that stifle growth, productivity and innovation.”

The FCA has previously come under pressure from MPs to be more transparent about its enforcement work, including a call two years ago from the House of Commons public accounts committee as part of its investigation into the British Steel workers’ pensions mis-selling scandal.

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When the proposal was announced, the FCA’s enforcement heads told the FT that the new approach would mainly apply to companies rather than individuals owing to legal constraints.

The regulator previously only disclosed details mid-investigation in “exceptional circumstances”. The agency is now looking to adopt a looser “public interest” test.

The FCA said it was looking to conduct investigations more quickly and would take a more focused approach to the number of cases it took on.

“We have been consulting on announcing our investigations, on a case-by-case basis, where it is in the public interest to do so,” the watchdog said. “We believe doing so will give all the firms we regulate and the wider public better insight, earlier, about issues we are concerned about.”

The FCA said the plans would bring it into line with several other UK regulators, including media watchdog Ofcom, energy regulator Ofgem and the Competition and Markets Authority.

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It said it had given people more time to respond to the consultation, which closes at the end of April. FCA officials have said it is unlikely the regulator will announce an investigation if it is deemed likely to have an “outsize impact”.

 

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