Nic Cicutti: Hannant’s knee-jerk response to Which? report does advisers no favours

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OK, here’s a small trade secret for any budding scribes out there. If you want to write a column for Money Marketing, there are several distinct phases that help determine what finally appears on the printed page, or on the MM website.

The first is finding a subject with enough meat on it for a decent discussion. The second is coming up with a line of argument, marshalling any available facts and figures that may help the discussion flow. Third is finding the words to write the piece.

To be honest, it is the first part that is by far the hardest. Quite often, you will wonder whether a subject is even worth bothering with.

Which is how I felt last week when reading Money Marketing’s story on research by the consumer group Which? to the effect that “of 500 advice firms’ websites, 70 per cent do not publish their charges online”.

Apparently, of 206 firms contacted by phone, 31 per cent provided a rough idea of fees, but 12 per cent refused to divulge costs.

Now, of course, we do not know precisely who the Which? researchers spoke to at each firm, what they asked and exactly what the firm’s response was. We are being asked to take the consumer group’s evidence at face value.

But on the whole, that sounded to me like a wholly unexceptionable report, more of a statement of the bleeding obvious than anything staggeringly new.

And while I expected a mildly unenthusiastic response from advisers, my initial take was that the omission of charges on a firm’s website was more to do with that old-fashioned feeling about discussing financial matters in a public arena than any deliberate decision to conceal information.

And then I read Apfa director general Chris Hannant’s response, in which he accused Which? of creating a climate of fear and “damaging consumers’ interests just for the sake of the headline”. He added: “The message you take away from the press release is you shouldn’t go to an adviser because it’s all a bit murky.”

There I was thinking that Which?, a body that has always supported the concept of independent financial advice, was trying to make a fairly obvious point about opacity and disclosure. Not as far as Hannant is concerned.

In his world, if consumers really want to know how much a specific piece of work might cost them they can make an appointment with a firm and find out at a face-to-face meeting.

This sounds fine, until you apply the same principle to buying a bedroom suite. So, you go on a website, look up beds and mattresses, bedside tables, wardrobes and chests of drawers, make a list of what you want and then take it to the store to be priced up. And even then, only by appointment.

Or you go down a supermarket aisle and fill your trolley, with the prices only being made known to you after everything has been scanned through the till.

In fairness to Hannant, he knows this. At the end of his diatribe against Which? he makes the same analogy about “walking into a shop without prices” and concedes that approaching an adviser “without any idea of what it will cost can be intimidating”.

But there is no sense of a real meeting of minds there, only a hostile knee-jerk reaction to a nondescript report by Which? that merely calls for a very basic level of charges disclosure be supplied by advisers on their websites.

Which brings me to a final point. Over the past few weeks, Money Marketing has rightly focused on the issue of where trade bodies are heading, specially in the wake of events at the Investment Association, but also elsewhere.

Unlike a trade union, the ultimate sanction of a withdrawal of labour is rarely if ever available to a trade body member. For the most part, the way to achieve an objective is a combination of lobbying and the use of alliances with others to help shape a commonly agreed outcome.

In this instance, for example, another hypothetical option for Hannant might have been to acknowledge there are indeed issues with charges information on some advisers’ websites.

He could then have advanced some perfectly valid reasons why this might be the case – for example, the difficulty of estimating a precise charge for work that is largely unknown until it is fully assessed and discussed.

Hannant could then have committed Apfa to working with Which? to create a voluntary model whereby such disclosure might best be achieved.

Instead, we got an entirely predictable negative response from Apfa. While it probably made the more Neanderthal sections of its membership happy, it did little or nothing to support the growing number of advisers – some of whom are also Apfa members – who believe being transparent with potential customers is the way forward for any business.

Especially a business that, after all, is itself supposed to be looking after a client’s money – while promoting itself on the internet, the most global of all shop windows.

Ironically, what Hannant also forgets is his reaction to a very basic issue will stay on the internet for ever, viewable by any consumer who wants to find out about charges disclosure. Another fantastic advert for his members.

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