I am not sure whether to laugh or cry this week. My original intention was to discuss, not altogether kindly, the latest Money Advice Service circular emanating out of Holborn.
The MAS has wisely decided to stop spending outlandish amounts of dosh on TV adverts marketing its services to a generally uninterested public.
What it is doing instead is spending marginally less ridiculous sums sending out bland press releases to an equally uninterested media.
So, for example, the FCA’s research in January, looking at how consumers are making use of their pension freedoms, was seen as an opportunity to use the online MAS retirement options tool. Well, of course it is.
Last week, the MAS published figures showing how, yet again, millions of consumers are making a beeline to its door. According to the MAS: “79,000 of the 89,000 people who sought debt advice between October and December went on to take a positive action to better manage their debts.”
No wonder MAS chief executive Caroline Rookes is apparently “thrilled to see that over eight million of the people who came to us for help took a positive action to budget and live within their means.”
Eight million, eh? Soon there will not be any debt left in the UK to worry about, because the MAS will have solved it all. Perhaps we can continue to make use of adviser contributions so that this wonderful organisation can continue to expand and ply its trade in other highly indebted nations – Greece springs to mind.
Then, suddenly, I became bored with this grandiose and slightly surreal attempt on the MAS’s part to persuade a disbelieving public that its trajectory is reaching ever higher.
Far more important, from the point of view of genuine debate at least, was the main article in Money Marketing last week asking whether there is a genuine advice gap.
As the article’s authors – MM editor Natalie Holt and head of news Tom Selby – pointed out, the existence of this so-called gap has been massively spun in recent years to justify a relaxation of the rules on selling financial products to gullible punters.
The entire raison d’être of the Financial Advice Market Review has been to come up with proposals – reduced qualification requirements, ‘regulatory sandboxes’ and the like – to help bridge this supposed gap.
Now, suddenly, we are being told there is no gap after all and that, wait for it, “attempts to plug [it] are more concerned with providers being able to serve mass market investors, rather than helping a cause for the common good.”
This, increasingly, is the view of industry experts, who are questioning whether “those investors that are said to fall into the advice gap want or even need a full advice service in the first place”.
All of this is not before time. I have been asking this very question for years. Actually, let it be said, so have others.
Back in 2013, I recall Money Marketing quoting the FCA’s then director of supervision, Clive Adamson, as saying “it is not clear there is an advice gap”.
I argued at the time that, broadly speaking, Adamson was right. Advice as it is commonly understood relates to future events you either want to plan for, such as retirement and paying for your children’s education, or that are suddenly thrust upon you, like divorce or bereavement.
Most people faced with the need to respond to such life-changing events generally eventually find someone able to advise them, often more by luck than judgment. For them, therefore, the issue is not an ‘advice gap’ as such but the ‘right adviser gap’.
The real problem is advisers have never found a wholly convincing way of promoting themselves collectively to fill that gap.
As for banks and insurance companies, when they talk about advice gaps they mean something completely different. They seem to think the sale of a product, any product, is tantamount to plugging this gap.
The reality is, as I argued in 2013, “a poor-value badly-performing product does not plug the gap. It makes it worse, especially when people surrender products or leave them paid up after a year or two of contributions. Abysmally poor persistency levels across almost all financial products tell their own story.”
To understand this point one need only look at some of the ideas floating round the FAMR, like the safe harbour proposal where it will be acceptable to give inappropriate advice as long as the underlying product is deemed to be satisfactory.
For the industry, that sort of ‘advice’ potentially targeted at millions of people, means the gap is ‘closed’. For consumers themselves, it will simply leave them worse off than if no attempt had been made to bridge the gap after all.
Advisers, meanwhile, are being used to justify a watering down of consumer protection that will bring no benefit to them or any prospective clients they might hope to attract.
Still, who knows, maybe we should simply do away with advisers and pass on responsibility for bridging the so-called advice gap to the MAS.
With this organisation’s brilliant record of statistical manipulation, the problem would be solved in a matter of weeks.
Nic Cicutti can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org