I shall not forget the time just a few months earlier when then news editor Caroline Merrell said across the newsdesk: “That’s it, we may as well all pack up and go home!” Why? Because the regulators (SIB, Fimbra and Lautro in those days) had decided to bring in “disclosure”. We did not even bother to precede it with the word “commission” as the debate was so much part of our lives as reporters.
Yet like so many of the other demons that haunt the world of IF As, it spooked the industry much less than anyone anticipated. Indeed, the impact was quite the reverse. From 1995 onwards, disclosure, reduction in yield figures, training and competence rules and general regulatory costs saw IFAs emerge as the victors against the unit-linked tied-agency sales forces that had dominated the early and mid 1990s.
The speed of the collapse of tied agency was breath-taking. Companies with thousands upon thousands of “financial consultants” – who can forget MI or General Portfolio? – shrivelled into insignificance once their costs and strategy were opened to proper scrutiny from consumers and regulators alike. From 1995 to 1997, IFAs turned the tide against other distribution channels. But their moans against regulation – which had delivered them market dominance – became ever shriller.
The period saw the rise of the networks when DBS and Countrywide were in their heyday and it also saw a determined effort by all IFAs, product providers and regulators alike to raise training and competence standards, and I was pleased to playa small part in this at Money Marketing.
Looking back, it was perhaps one of the most prosperous times for the life companies. Yes, pension misselling hung like a cloud over the industry but it was beginning to recede. The endowment scandal was yet to erupt and sales of unit trusts, Peps, personal pensions and with-profits bonds were hitting records.
The investment industry was speedily recovering from the 1994 downturn brought on by the Mexican crisis and was about to embark on the ride of its life as the bull market took hold.
Meanwhile, the life companies were unknowingly plumping themselves up for takeover. Scottish Widows, Scottish Amicable, Scottish Mutual, Scottish Equitable were all beginning to look extremely ripe. To the credit of the management of (most) of those companies, the prices they later achieved for their with-profits owners were extraordinary, in particular, Mike Ross at Widows obtained a bonanza for policyholders that will probably never be equaled.
I was certainly blessed with a remarkable set of young journalists who have since gone on to have successful careers. Battles with my deputy, Richard Miles, were frequent but driven by a desire to get it right, not personal politics. He now handles public relations for Fidelity and whatever battles there are, and there are very few, now take place in more salubrious surroundings. It was also a time when I could survey a news desk run by Grant Ringshaw (now at the Sunday Telegraph), Simon English (Telegraph), Andrew Verity (BBe), Claire Burston (Penrose), Emma Ringshaw (freelance) and Darren Behar (Daily Mail). It was a top quality team and you are only ever as good as the team you work with, so I thank them for making my job that much more comfortable.