Nic Cicutti: FAMR ignores simple fact consumers do not trust advisers

Nic Cicutti

Whenever I tell people I was born in Rome and lived the first 10 years of my life in Italy there is always someone who professes surprise at the fact I have somehow managed to master the odd word of English, let alone that I make a living writing in the language.

Of course, living in this country for several decades has helped. But if I am honest, the biggest aid to my learning English has always been an insatiable appetite for reading.

One novel I came back to recently, restacking our shelves after a couple of years when our books were in storage, was Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains Of The Day.

Many will be familiar with the story: Stevens the butler fails to understand – and therefore to act on – his love for a housekeeper when he was working with her many years before. He travels to see her, only to discover he is too late: she is now happily married to someone else.

Ishiguro writes of Stevens’ inability to recognise and act on his feelings at the time. “While it is all very well to talk of ‘turning points’, one can surely only recognise such moments in retrospect.

“Naturally, when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one’s life; but of course, at the time, this was not the impression one had.”

Like Ishiguro’s main character, there may come a point when we will see the Financial Advice Market Review report published last week as a turning point in the efforts to reduce and eventually do away with the so-called advice gap affecting millions of UK consumers.

That really needs to be the case because, judging by the lukewarm response to the 85-page report’s rather vague proposals on how to make quality advice available to the general public, that is certainly not what most industry observers are thinking at the moment.

The truth is while many of the report’s ideas are interesting and may or may not improve the provision of advice to a cohort of consumers who are unable to afford it, none of them are the silver bullet advisers themselves were hoping would emerge from the review.

Yes, the FAMR is recommending a far greater level of automated advice as a way of delivering a cheaper– but still high-quality – service to consumers.

Its report states “new technologies can play a major role in driving down the costs of supplying advice and enabling firms to engage with customers more effectively”.

But we all knew that already: I have been banging on about it for years. And Ian McKenna has been doing so for even longer and with a far greater degree of expert knowledge and insight.

It is also true that when it comes to the accessibility of advice “the workplace represents an opportunity to help more people access financial guidance and increase take-up of financial advice”.

“It may be that the FAMR was the FCA’s way of telling the industry that there are already lots of things they can do within the existing rules”

But we knew that too. Somehow, the FAMR recommendation that “the Financial Advice Working Group should work with employers to develop and promote a guide to the top 10 ways to support employees’ financial health” as well as creating a new factsheet setting out the help employers and pension trustees can provide on financial matters does not really cut the mustard.

As for the other proposals, including “consulting on guidance to provide clarity on the standard types of information required as part of the fact-find process” or “the FCA and industry should continue to work together with the aim of bringing about improvements to suitability reports”, these do not sound very radical either.

The problem is while the FAMR seems to consist of lots of little ideas that will undoubtedly help streamline the process of giving advice as well as help address issues such as the occasional lack of clarity from the Financial Ombudsman Service, none of these individual proposals will achieve much on their own.

It may be the FAMR was the FCA’s way of telling the industry there are already lots of things they can do within the existing rules.

This appears to reflect acting FCA chief executive Tracey McDermott’s comment in Money Marketing, to the effect she wants to make existing rules “clearer” and “work better” by giving firms “more guidance”.

None of this strikes me as rocket science.

Two thoughts come to mind as a result of this review. The first is although it is possible the FAMR may overcome the fact there is no single big idea on how to overcome the advice gap, the way the report is structured means we will not know for sure for several years to come.

The second is none of the proposals appear to have an answer for the one constant that is repeated time and time again in the report: namely the real issue about access actually appears to be a lack of trust by consumers towards the industry.

If that is the case, rather like Ishiguro’s butler who could have responded to the housekeeper’s feelings towards him but did not until it was far too late, the answer lies not in these FAMR proposals but with the industry itself.

On past experience, the industry’s response to this report will also be too little, too late.

Nic Cicutti can be contacted at him on Twitter @NicCicutti