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Petty cash

Do you know the joke about a guy staying in a hotel who tries to get rid of all the little bars of courtesy soap in favour of his own preferred larger size and it all goes horribly wrong, with notes being sent back and forth to managers and maids, as sarcasm turns into temper tantrums? If not, take a look at www.ahajokes.com/fp034.

This story makes me realise that we work in an environment just as banal and petty as that described in the joke. Perhaps the industry as a whole can learn from this and at last shed its image of jargon-fuelled, bureaucratic, mind-numbing geeks?

Just this week, my resolve was pushed to its limit with such an example of heart-sinking intransigence.

We are dealing with an annuity case for a very lovely chap who has entrusted the open-market option to our good scrutiny. Merrily we send off his (undated) letter of authority to the ceding scheme, only for us to receive a letter two weeks later asking us to get another letter from the client. They could not have dated it themselves, could they? No chance.

I guess they must be sore that we are moving large sums of money away from them but that is conjecture on my part.

Sometimes it is the best names that get it wrong. A year or so ago, I decided to change bank account, with all the admin hassles that go with it. Amazingly, it all happened very smoothly and life settled down again, apart from my Invesco Perpetual Isa direct debit. Everyone else managed it but not Invesco Perpetual. Every month, regular as clockwork, I get a reminder to send two original pieces of ID through our less than reliable postal system. Still, all that paper makes for good firelighters.

Petty-mindedness has infected us all to the extent that it has become endemic. We have all become polluted with the same condition that is slowly but surely choking the life out of us all. Our own internal procedures are numerous, eccentric and intricate in an attempt to fend off criticism in years to come.

I see discount brokers flourish and often wonder if we should not have done the same thing. Perhaps their lives are easy and unencumbered without the minutiae of giving advice. Perhaps they go to bed at night and are able to sleep easy in the knowledge that they are not accountable for their actions, administrative issues aside. I cannot quite shake the feeling that giving advice feels a bit of a mug’s game.

I also wonder at all the FSA’s attempts to cover its own back and look on in morbid fascination at the manifestation of this.

Primarily, it is a rulebook that even the FSA cannot understand (I know it is a popular anecdote but there has to be some truth in it, do you not agree?) There is also a returns system that is glorious in its complexity. Actually, when I say complex, what I really mean is initially complex.

I remember my first ever return to the FSA in a previous firm. It took me all day to enter the myriad of fields and pages. There were several fraught phone calls to the helpline and not an insignificant amount of joyous dancing around the office once it had all been cross-validated and submitted.

These days, it is a halfhour job with a cup of coffee. Now, if this sounds like a thinly disguised compliment, I have to admit it is, so there is hope for us all.

Now we know what data to collect and have learnt the system’s idiosyncrasies, it is a relative breeze. I even found myself muttering the words: “Oh FSA, I think I love you.” Then the coffee kicked in and I faced my next hurdle of the day – budgeting for the new FSA fees.

Tom Kean is director of Thameside

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