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Fear and loathing at the Treasury

Some off-the-cuff remarks from Gordon Brown’s right-hand man Ed Balls, Economic Secretary to the Treasury, suggest a less than complimentary view of IFAs.

He suggests they may need some financial education before the public do and is surprised that so many have survived, given what the Treasury was doing in terms of policy when he was last there.

The views would seem to be borne out by policy. Time and again, the Treasury puts together policies which cut out the sector, only to discover that things do not work if you leave out such a key component in distribution.

The big failure was stakeholder where the Government tried to impose a tight price-capped regime on advisers and providers, only to see the project fail to deliver.

What went wrong with stakeholder was not the principle of a low-cost, easy-access pension but the practice of trying to deliver it at unrealistic cost through unproven distribution paths.

To distribute the product through IFAs, either providers had to dig deep and sometimes too deep into their pockets or individual advisers were meant to advise on pensions at a loss.

Partly as a result of this badly planned policy, the Government is now confronted with implementing Turner at a huge political risk. The same could be said for depolarisation. At the time, Money Marketing argued for keeping polarisation.

There is still a suspicion that the Office of Fair Trading, with its concerns about competition, was used by the Treasury to get rid of the system, in effect, the decision was predetermined.

Yet we have yet to see how the liberalisation of the tied side of advice has really helped deliver financial services to more people. In all but a few exceptions, depolarisation has seemed more like a distraction for distribution businesses rather than some sort of godsend. The consumer benefit for all this trouble still seems limited.

Much of this seems to be the result of a Treasury loathing for advisers, as revealed by Balls’ speech. It is a great shame.

No one is suggesting that Balls and other ministers should learn to love IFAs but they should at very least learn to live with what is an essential part of the financial services industry.


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