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NUKI&#39S EYE

Welcome to my final rant on UK financial services.After more than six years bashing commission-hungry insurance salespeople, overcharging investment companies and inept regulators, I have finally been clubbed over the head myself and left to concentrate on my day job.

I wish I could say that the industry I have enjoyed kicking so much was now serving the investing public efficiently but I am not going to start making things up now. There has, however, been progress.

Endowment policies – once my number one target – are all but dead. It took a while but it is now generally (and officially) accepted that an investment plan which secretly consumes up to half the money paid into it in charges and then a whole lot more if surrendered early is not an ideal vehicle for repaying a mortgage.

Mortgage lending itself has also improved. Financial hacks like me were widely criticised in the early 1990s for suggesting that banks and building societies were cheating consumers by reducing the capital sum outstanding on a repayment mortgage only once a year.

Now there is hardly a new product launched which does not guarantee that all repayments will be offset against capital in the month that they are received.

However, the biggest positive change probably concerns investment management. When I first started bashing out these columns, I was virtually alone in condemning the performance of actively managed unit trusts and pushing for the introduction of cutprice index-tracker funds.

When Virgin did just that,I was attacked for brown nosing to the bearded one. Today, however, the cut-price indextracking principle is not just commonplace in the field of lump-sum investment but stands set to underpin longterm pension provision as well.

Regulation has also improved although not so markedly. The narrow focus of watchdogs on the marketing of investment products has given way to regulation of the products themselves.

The introduction of Catmarked products is a big step forward and will eventually allow politicians to make sure that tax breaks are only attached to products which provide value for money.

But despite these improvements, Britain&#39s financial service industry remains infested with sharks. Ordinary people who set out looking for a mortgage, pension, insurance policy or savings plan are still more likely than not to end up with a product so poor that it should be banned.

It pains me to say it but two groups I have championed in the past – IFAs and the unit trust industry – are largely to blame for this sad state of affairs. Both once stood poised to revolutionise and dominate financial services in the UK for the public good but both allowed greed and short-term self-interest to stand in their way.

For IFAs, the death sentence is official. After more than a decade in which it was hoped that the IFA sector would mature into a powerful force which offered only the best products to an expanding chunk of the population, the regulators have finally concluded that they set their sights too high with the principle of polarisation.

Over and over again, IFAs have demonstrated that they are not up to the job, so now we are going to get multi-ties. This will never create a system in which the majority of consumers end up with first-rate products but, it is hoped, a minority will end up in the third and fourth quartiles.

The unit trust industry is not officially dead but considering the opportunity it has missed, it might as well be. When the failures of the life industry were first exposed in the 1990s, Autif&#39s membership stood poised to dominate retail investment management in Britain. All they had to do was play to their competitive advantages of simplicity, cost, flexibility and trans- parency and the future would have been theirs.

But, like IFAs, unit trust companies got greedy. Instead of cutting their management charges as the money came in, they increased them. Instead of enhancing their product&#39s transparency, they sought to cloud it and instead of ditching their pride and grasping the innovation of index tracking with both hands, they have arrogantly continued to major on active fund management.

Now the ball is back with life companies such as Legal & General, which are offering simple, flexible and transparent shortand long-term saving vehicles for as little as 0.5 per cent a year, sometimes less.

I still think the price is a tad high but they are heading in the right direction. For now, I wish them luck.

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