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Hit the road, Jack

I believe that we are at a crossroads in the IFA world, as we may well see some sensible changes in how the Financial Ombudsman Scheme charges, with no fee until the second or third complaint.

Prior to any celebrations, we receive the news that some IFAs can avoid fines or need not be totally solvent, as long as they are of a significant size.

Now, I am not going to begin to examine the various tests for solvency or their merits or demerits but, if you are going to the trouble of having a test, let us not then put it to one side. Nor should fines be held back. If a firm benefited from ill-deserved commission, it should pay the fine. If your firm cannot, why not your shareholders?

From the client’s perspective – remember them? – a firm that has little in the way of reserves must cause concern, irrespective of its size. As to providers bankrolling some of the more financially-challenged firms, just how do they convince themselves it makes sense to keep propping up these firms?

Clients prefer continuity. Any form of creative accounting does little to assuage their fears. If this profession is to grow and build, we, the business owners, need to invest and cut the umbilical cord that tethers us to the providers.

The idea that a client in the future will invest a seven-figure sum with a sole trader IFA is fanciful. IFAs need to start creating co-ops if they want to stay fully independent and are not to become part of a plc where the priority is email and not client contact.

Failing that, we will need a firm to mop up the smaller players or a sensible association of smaller firms which can benefit from the support of a wealthy parent.

I do not believe that many of the bigger IFAs will still be in the same form or have the same market influence by 2010. Initial reaction may be to man the barricades but, on reflection, this enforced cull has much to commend it.

We need to reflect on who is a trading risk and who is not. At least, we need to if the compensation payments are to be brought under control and not be just a product of the next trend.

The phoenix companies need to be curtailed or better still banned.

Let us hope the FSA regains its composure and ensures that the playing field remains level when it comes to capital adequacy support from providers. If this comes in the form of marketing allowances, it needs to be banned, as does providers overpaying for subsidiaries as a way round the current rules.

The late great comedian Jack Benny was often accused by his peers, Bob Hope in particular, of being mean.

If we are not to be seen as comedians ourselves, then this must be reflected in the culture of the firm and not just be a soundbite.

Jack Benny said he was not mean, it was just that he had short arms and deep pockets. The latter is what we will all need access to if we are to win ground in the high-net-worth segment of the marketplace.

On the other hand, short arms seem to be the order of the day if you have a big, unprofitable IFA firm.

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