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Delay reaction

Nicola York discovers the industry’s reaction to Axa’s call for a year’s delay to the Sipp extensions

Advisers have suggested Axa is not ready for A-Day after the company called for a year’s delay on the wider investment freedoms of Sipps in order to bring them in simultaneously with Sipp regulation.

Hargreaves Lansdown head of pensions research Tom McPhail says: “Axa have been a little slow off the mark in developing their Sipp proposition and it is hard not to draw the slightly cynical conclusion that their comments may be driven by their own commercial agenda. This delay would give them a chance to catch up on the work they have not yet done.”

As reported in Money Marketing last week, Axa has written to the Treasury outlining its concerns over residential property being put into Sipps and has asked the regulator to delay new investments available in Sipps until the products are regulated in 2007. The provider believes estate agents are promoting residential property in Sipps without being made aware of the potential risks.

Axa pensions development manager Tony Moore says: “Potentially, there could be people that recommend unregulated products where a client could get unregulated or unclear advice.” Moore refutes claims that Axa is not ready for A-Day and says the company would expect to be in a position to offer residential property Sipp products at the same time as other providers. Moore believes the best solution would be for the Treasury to delay the widening of investment types in Sipps.

But McPhail says he does not want the Treasury to change its policy. He says: “We are already so far down the road that any reversal of policy would be extremely damaging to the industry and consumers alike. A-Day has already been delayed by two years – we are less than six months away from arriving at the day. To make such a radical change in direction now would be unwelcome and I suspect unlikely.”

McPhail says providers concerned about these issues should be reassured because he expects most Sipp companies to conduct themselves in a professional manner.

He says there is strong support within the Sipp community for this regulation and with encouragement from the FSA and HMRC “it is reason-able to expect that the Sipp end of the chain will conduct itself properly”.

Informed Choice managing director Nick Bamford has an alternative solution. He says: “If Axa cared about its customers, they would call for the Treasury to bring forward the regulation of Sipps instead. It suggests Axa are not ready for A-Day otherwise they would have come up with this solution.”

But Bamford does not think the Treasury will delay the date of Sipp extensions or bring forward the regulation of Sipps. He believes the problem has been over-hyped anyway and the potential damage to providers and advisers will not be as bad as some people are predicting.

Pensions and Trustee Services director Richard Jacobs agrees with Bamford on the issue of why Sipps cannot be made a regulated contract in time for A-Day.

He says: “It has taken us 20 years of oppressive regulation to get the cowboys out of our industry and at a stroke the treasury are letting them back in.”

Jacobs believes there is a sinister political message behind the Treasury’s reasons for delaying the regulation of Sipps.

He says: “I believe Gordon Brown is letting us have all this freedom. He is going to see the abuse that happens and in a very short time he is going to turn around and say, well, I gave you all these opportunities and they have been abused. We are now going to tax pension funds.”

If Sipps are not regulated in time for A-Day, Jacobs says the industry will have to accept that Sipps will probably be available to unregulated providers forever.

He says: “As soon as the estate agents, stamp collectors and auctioneers have got their Sipps in place, a year down the line they will be turning round and saying, hang on you are taking this business off us.

“We will then have a model where the regulator will probably be challenged because they will be disenfranchising a group of people who have been legitimately, they will say, selling Sipps.”

Clerical Medical pensions marketing manager Nick Cooper agrees with Axa’s concerns and thinks the 12-month window before Sipp regulation comes into force goes against the principles of depolarisation. But he agrees that bringing the regulation forward would make more sense than Axa’s solution.

Delaying the use of property in Sipps, he thinks, would be potentially dam-aging for providers. He says: “Having got the consumer interested in linking property and pensions we do not want to further delay these measures and risk the public losing interest.”

Moore says other investments such as stamps and wine are not as much of a concern for the company because they are more straightforward.

Axa’s main concerns lie with residential property in Sipps because “it is probably the area where we would be most at risk of fraud- ulent activity”.

He says property in Sipps has captured people’s imaginations and has had the most publicity. Therefore, there is more risk associated with this type of investment over the more straight-forward ones.

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