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Acronym and acrimony

Last week’s comment piece in Money Marketing in which Towry Law chief executive Andrew Fisher suggested that Aifa really stands for Amalgamation of Ignorant Flat Earth Advocates is unlikely to win him many friends among readers of this newspaper.

Under normal circumstances, I would be reluctant to pass on the baton as the industry’s most hated columnist. I still hold dear the memory of having bread rolls thrown at me for some vaguely critical comments made at a life and pension dinner a few years ago.

But following Fisher’s column – and his firm’s dramatic resignation from Aifa a few days earlier – I fear I must relinquish my role.

Fisher’s decision to lead Towry Law out of Aifa marks the latest round in what seems to be an ever more bitter battle between himself and IFAs’ biggest trade body over the implications of the retail distribution review.

Only a few weeks ago, he refused to join a group of industry leaders brought together by Aifa to prepare a document on advice in the 21st Century, saying: “I declined to join the taskforce as I fundamentally disagree with where its arguments are coming from.”

What interests me in this latest spat is not just Fisher’s views about the RDR but also his analysis as to why Aifa opposes the review.

He claims Aifa’s bias toward one-man-band IFAs is the reason for its stance. Fisher says: “The sheer volume of small independent IFAs do not want any broad changes, which leaves Aifa in an impossible situation.”

As it happens, I think he is wrong on this one. I have argued before that the need to cater to and reflect the views of its IFA constituency, as well as not be outflanked by the likes of the IFA Defence Union, sometimes means Aifa cannot afford to be as bold and adventurous in terms of supporting consumer interests.

That said, let us not forget that Aifa was in large measure the product of a determination in late 1999 to end the conflictual relationship between its predecessor, the IFA Association, and regulators.

Garry Heath, a previous chief executive, was defenestrated and Paul Smee put in Heath’s place in order to achieve this.

Moreover, what was also apparent in the formation of Aifa was that it was primarily a creature of the insurance industry, IFA networks and big IFAs that funded it and brought it into existence. For many years, contrary to what Fisher says, Aifa has never really included that many one-man-band IFAs in its ranks.

So the decisions as to what position it takes on the RDR are Aifa’s. It may be inspired by a small IFA mentality but I doubt very much whether it is dictated to by IFAs.

If what I am saying is right, that raises questions about where Aifa goes next. This will be determined by the views of its financial sponsors, who will yank the trade body’s chain where it suits.

What is interesting here is that we do not really know the attitude of most bigger IFAs, with the exception of Towry Law, nor of life offices that are dependent on IFA business. Intriguingly, there is little I have read in Money Marketing to give us a real sense of where the life offices sit on this issue.

Not that this matters to Fisher, who has staked out his position and will now continue to occupy it. Given his stance, I very much doubt whether he needs advice from me but I will offer it nonetheless. It is right to back the concept behind the RDR and to oppose the way Aifa has reached its own position on it.

But fetishising the RDR is itself a mistake. It is a highly flawed paper with some proposals that do not advance the cause of greater IFA professionalism. So if you want to sit on the side of those who broadly back its scope, you must come up with ideas that can improve what has been published.

Furthermore, supporting the RDR is not in itself a guarantee that your own business is itself a model of professionalism. It is one thing to oppose commission and prefer a fee-based remuneration model for your business. The real acid test remains that of what levels of professional service you offer your clients.

Personally, I believe that a fair few commission-earning IFAs strive to offer that kind of service, whereas I am not convinced that all Towry Law advisers do the same – and I speak from personal experience here.

Either way, I doff my hat to Fisher. It took me years to reach my station in life, yet all it took from him is a snappy acronym and, luckily for both of us, I suspect he will be the one receiving my hate mail for quite some time to come.

Nic Cicutti is the editor of moneysupermarket.com. He can be contacted at nic.cicutti@moneysupermarket.com

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