Every now and then, when trying to make a point in a column, I find myself quoting from a book I have read, or a film I have watched.
Ironically, there is a verse I have often gone back to in recent years from an author – Theo Geisel – whom I never had the opportunity to read as a child.
Geisel, better known to millions as Dr Seuss, was famous for his simple rhymes and stories, coupled with fantastic illustrations.
One of the rhymes reads: “How did it get so late so soon? It’s night before it’s afternoon. December is here before it’s June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?”
A friend gave me a card with those words a few years ago, after listening to me whinge about never having the time to do anything because I was so immersed in the relentless grind of my work.
Sadly, the card is one of many items that went up in smoke during our house fire a few months ago. But the words are widely available on the internet.
For any adviser who finds himself chasing his or her tail day after day – meeting clients, carrying out research, sending off bills, dealing with endless screeds of paperwork, not to mention all sorts of regulatory requirements in the process – Dr Seuss’s little ditty will ring a few bells.
It came back to me last week after reading in Money Marketing that FCA chief executive Martin Wheatley was saying advice firms have been “sitting on their hands” since the RDR, instead of coming up with ideas to close the advice gap.
Wheatley’s words must have felt like a kick in the teeth to advisers. To be told you are “sitting on your hands” feels a gratuitous insult.
Even worse, Wheatley probably did not script those words himself: anyone who earns more money in a year than most working men or women do in a lifetime doesn’t “do” speech writing. You get a minion to write it, then check the speech over – or maybe, if you are important enough, another flunkey does that for you too.
Having penned my fair share of corporate speeches for others over the years, my guess is the flunkey probably thought “sitting on your hands” would act as a little “livener”, something to make the audience sit up and take notice.
Wheatley, or other FCA subordinates who went over the first draft, clearly agreed.
The speech was delivered knowing the effect it would cause. Wheatley and his gofers will probably have been hugging themselves with glee at the trade press’s reports – and the angry response of advisers to the speech in the comments.
The irony is there is a smidgeon of truth in Wheatley’s statement. It is true that in the absence of a commercially viable simplified advice option, “rather than innovating themselves to create a replacement, too many advice firms have been ‘waiting for the next step’ to be laid out for them”.
But a large part of that problem lies in a dynamic involving two decades of stunted co-dependency and mutual mistrust between watchdog and industry, in which repeated failures to regulate effectively lead to misselling scandals, belated crackdowns and new, supposedly improved rule-setting.
No wonder, then, that the response of much of the industry is to wait for the FCA’s latest brainwave to be published – followed by successive interpretations of how that brainwave should be applied in practice – before tentatively trying to put it into practice.
As for Wheatley’s view, which incidentally I agree with, that “automated advice” will one day be a key part of any solution to the so-called advice gap, this is not an area advisers are likely to be able to afford to develop themselves.
Creating a viable online advice system – easy to understand and use, accurate, credible, fast, cheap or at least economically worthwhile for consumers – is feasible, without a shadow of doubt.
I am sure there are many out there putting the building blocks of such a system together right now. But the reality is it costs a small fortune to do it. And it is also technically demanding.
Apart from anything, were it that simple you can bet your bottom dollar firms like Hargreaves Lansdown, a large network, or even a fund group like Fidelity would have rolled something out by now.
Advisers themselves have neither pockets that are deep enough, nor the time to do it themselves.
For them, the way forward will either be to licence such a system from one of the big providers or, if they can stomach it, tie up with a network in return for a slice of their earnings.
Advisers do need to modernise. They need to think through their strategic options with respect to marketing, to pricing strategies, service, technology and a host of other issues.
The trouble is, for many advisers time flies so fast it is often “night before it’s afternoon”.
Which is why for Wheatley to talk glibly about Project Innovate and people “sitting on their hands” is to miss the point.
A cheap headline is one thing. Assisting advisers to become what you want them to be is another: it involves fewer slurs, and more genuine dialogue and engagement.
Nic Cicutti can be contacted a firstname.lastname@example.org