Nic Cicutti: Advisers shouldn’t hold grudges over BoE comments

Nic Cicutti

Look, I hate giving away the secrets of the writers’ craft, but there are times when needs really must.

About 20 years ago, I was approached by a trade newspaper and asked to contribute a regular column on financial issues relevant to advisers, but with a consumer spin.

For many months I toiled away, crafting carefully-considered “on the one hand, on the other hand” pieces that were noteworthy for their attempts to be fair, inclusive and reflect every possible viewpoint before arriving at a measured opinion.

With hindsight, I regard that period in my writing as a failure. The problem with my approach back then was while it ticked all the boxes in terms of fairness, accuracy and a meditative approach, it lacked a key element – the ability to engage with readers’ passions, to really make them think and respond in kind.

To do that, you need to use language differently, to adopt a variety of literary devices like assonance, allusion, analogy, anecdote, anastrophe – while not forgetting alliteration, of course.

One of the more powerful devices is hyperbole, an extreme exaggeration used to make a point, to liven up a discussion. Hyperbole is a form of emphasis, it evokes strong feelings and creates powerful impressions. But as a figure of speech, it is usually not meant to be taken literally.

Sadly, I fear the application of hyperbole appears to have passed Apfa director general Chris Hannant by. Last week was a case in point, with the revelation that Hannant had written to Andrew Haldane, chief economist of the Bank of England, objecting to his comments that advisers “have no clue” about pensions.

What was Haldane’s crime? In a speech at the New City Agenda annual dinner last week, Haldane admitted to his audience: “I consider myself moderately financially literate – yet I confess to not being able to make the remotest sense of pensions. Conversations with countless experts and independent financial advisers have confirmed for me only one thing – that they have no clue either. That is a desperately poor basis for sound financial planning.”

“Haldane was also self-critical. He quoted research showing BoE speeches and reports are considered even more complex than annual reports from commercial banks”

I have read Haldane’s entire 8,000-word speech and it is exceptionally good, thoughtful, incisive, witty and it offers massive food for thought. Its 20-odd pages reference dozens of pieces of research from a variety of sources.

His comments about advisers came in the context of a discussion about the complexity of financial products: “There is plenty of evidence, including from the financial crisis, of financial products being made more complex than was necessary and consumers being charged a premium for buying them. This damaging cycle persists because of the difficulties consumers understandably face when trying to compare these products.”

For those who have read some of Haldane’s other speeches in recent years, the issue of unnecessary financial complexity has long been seen as central to his thinking.

In this regard, Haldane was also self-critical, identifying that most members of the public do not believe the Bank of England operates with openness – partly because they believe its leaders move in a different world from the rest of us. In his speech, Haldane quoted research showing BoE speeches and reports are considered even more complex than annual reports from commercial banks.

Haldane said: “This suggests the vast majority of the Bank’s publications may be inaccessible to the vast majority of the general public. Having assessed my own speeches, including this one, the conclusion is much the same.”

The lesson he identifies is the Bank of England must engage directly with people. When he attends meetings up and down the country he talks not just to the Bank’s company contacts but also to schools, colleges and universities and to voluntary organisations, charities and community groups.

Interesting stuff, with lots to think about – but not as far as Afpa’s po-faced Hannant is concerned. His letter told Haldane: “Advisers work hard to gain the appropriate qualifications and permissions to be able to help people make the right long-term financial decisions.

“In an environment where people need access to advice more than ever – and where the Government has committed to broaden this access through the Financial Advice Market Review – it is counter-productive to make comments that might diminish trust in the advice profession.”

Hannant offers to meet Haldane to debate this further – just as eager Jehovah’s Witnesses knock on householders’ doors and leave a copy of The Watchtower with them, so they can come back and “study” it together.

The idea of Haldane taking time to sit with Hannant and discuss the delights of the Chartered Insurance Institute’s JO2 paper on trusts as part of advisers’ journey towards QCF level 4 is a joke, of course.

What Hannant’s letter really reflects, sadly, is the chip-on-the-shoulder provincialism of a trade body capable only of focusing on a minor piece of hyperbole, rather than playing an active role in the battle of ideas about how we make financial planning come alive and relevant to millions of people in the UK. Tragic.

Nic Cicutti can be contacted at nic@inspiredmoney.co.uk. Follow him on twitter @NicCicutti