Guess who came to dinner? Ron Sandler, head of the Treasury commission review of the retail savings industry, had agreed to be guest speaker at Aifa's annual dinner at the Old Brewery in the City of London.
And as the last few industry dinners had all featured Rory Bremner delivering the same set, diners were grateful that they were not going to be subject to a repeat performance.
Cutting a distinctive figure with his jet black trim-med beard, Ron Sandler's approach to the rostrum led one wag to mutter. “Has he not been told that you can cut your beard now?” The nervous and impatient anticipation of what Sandler had prepared in his speech was broken by a little joke.
Reminiscing about an incident in his early days as a wet-behind-the-ears management consultant, Sandler recalled: “I said I am sometimes my own worst enemy”. To which someone in the room said “Not while I am alive”. Cue relieved laughter – finally something that IFAs could totally agree with.
The savings ratio, said Sandler, had moved up to the top of his concerns. Some IFAs scratched their heads. Sandler persisted: What were the implications of technology minimising the need for advice and the need to look at this in association with possible reform' of polarisation?
Before taking the job, Sandler declared that he had assured himself that Chancellor Gordon Brown and the Treasury had no preset agenda and that there were to be no no-go areas.
He was prepared to be critical of the Government and regulator.
Sandler declared he too has no hidden agenda and no baggage: “I have no axe to grind”.
With a characteristic directness, Sandler said there was only time to discuss one subject – commission. The atmosphere in the audience changed – the audience knew the main course was about to be served.
Those who had read Sandler's initial consultation checked their pockets for their indigestion tablets. Commission, said Sandler, is an opaque loan to the consumer.
Wiping smiles off faces, Sandler said consumers were happy with their IFAs – but at least partly because they thought they were getting something for free.
Sandler said he had been deluged with responses of varying degrees of helpfulness. One was “a few vitriolic paragraphs from some outraged IFA”.
Aifa chairman Lord Hunt of the Wirral – one of only five Tory ministers who escaped being sacked by Margaret Thatcher – had in his earlier speech spoken of 20 reviews the industry was labouring under.
In reply, Sandler said he was keenly aware of the dangers of duplication and of the paralysing effects of a review. But his review, claimed Sandler, is an example of “joined-up” thinking.
IFAs were not the only topic – Sandler described the providers' “stakeholder straitjacket” and the “intricacies of life company accounting” that the two teams of consultants have been assisting his inquiry with. Of course, consultancy, which is where Sandler started off, presents one of the clearest arguments for fees there is – if you are a consultant, as one or two advisers remarked.
IFAs graciously managed a polite round of applause for Sandler – at least they now know the nature of the beast.
A slightly taken aback Aifa director general Paul Smee got to his feet, thanked Sandler, and with little ado said: “I will now say the words beloved of financial services – the bar is now open.” And all needed a drink.