Years ago, when I was a full-time member of staff on a national newspaper, one of my weekly highlights – and that of almost all my colleagues – was the arrival of Money Marketing in the post.
Not just MM, in fairness, but other trade journals and magazines covering their financial sectors. Hardly surprising, really: many of us came from a trade press background. Our friends worked there and we recognised the quality journalism in those papers. They provided us with an excellent panoramic background into many issues that affected the industry.
Indeed, the trade press was a regular source of excellent national stories, or ideas for further research – for which I always tried to give credit to the individual journalists concerned or their publications, sharing bylines with them and ensuring they received a fee for their initial work.
I have no way of knowing how many of my former colleagues still read MM and the rest of the trade press regularly. Anecdotally, my guess is most of them do: once every month or so an email pings its way into my inbox from a fellow scribe, commenting on an article I have written.
Not only journalists, by the way. Years ago, after I wrote something in this paper I was asked to visit a member of the Treasury select committee to discuss the matter further. His researchers, and those of other MPs I have met, regularly scan trade papers to see if there is anything their bosses should know about.
Which brings me neatly to my column last week, in which I described old-style personal pension charges dating back to the 1990s as “the industry’s dirty little secret.”To make my point, I quoted chapter and verse on the types of charges that were in force then and are still being applied today to millions of contracts that have been left paid up.
Although I did not say so in my article, the specific examples given came from research originally published by Money Marketing back in the mid-1990s, therefore an impeccable source.
Moreover, this is an issue baing discussed with increasing interest by politicians on both sides of the divide, by national newspaper journalists and, with extreme reluctance, by the industry.
Given the above, you might have thought the majority of advisers would have lined up to condemn the practices of pension providers back then, who deliberately structured their charges in such a way as to falsify the real impact of RIYs on the majority of consumers taking out their products.
The equation ought to be easy to understand and apply: IFAs are consumer champions, in theory at least. High hidden charges do not benefit their clients and should therefore be scrapped. Therefore, the starting point in any debate is to support those who say so, even with reservations. “Simples”, as my old mate Aleksandr Orlov often tells me.
Except there was nothing “simple” in the response of many IFAs to my column, certainly in the online version of MM. Or maybe there was, but in another sense – the complete loss of any genuine understanding of the matter under discussion, leading to what one can only charitably describe as an “industry-credulous” position.
So, for instance, one commentator began by saying: “That’s right Nic, you keep stoking the fires of negative sentiment. Let’s make sure no-one is investing or saving for retirement by referring to the bad old days”, before grudgingly conceding – but only after she’d had a pop at me – that these contracts were “disgraceful”.
Another respondent wrote: “Typical Cicutti. Negativity, negativity, negativity!”, before admitting that “yes the contracts were wrong and did have high charges.” A third writer, who without any hint of self-irony dubbed himself Justin Credible, added: “Did you have to get out the history books to look for something to be negative about this week? …What are you treating us to next week? Slavery, kids up chimneys, failings of the medical profession in dealing with the bubonic plague or lack of eye protection in 1066?”
I was also branded a “troll” – a term for someone who posts inflammatory and off-topic messages with the primary intent of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion, none of which applies to me.
Elsewhere in the paper, my old sparring partner Alan Lakey wrote an article opposing the creation of more “McProducts”, simplified financial products like stakeholder pensions which no-one wants to sell, presumably because they don’t pay enough commission. It somehow managed to escape Alan that, for all their faults, stakeholder pensions delivered salvation against the charges so prevalent in the industry before their arrival.
At one level, I don’t mind any of this. If, instead of defending the interests of your clients and proving that you are on their side some of you choose instead to attack those who raise matters of genuine concern, that’s fine by me.
But one or two of you should be aware that there are no hermetically-sealed walls to stop people reading what you write, anywhere on the internet – and the world is watching.
Nic Cicutti can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org