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Stake through the heart

Are life offices, in some strange way, undermining the companies they invest in?

Money Marketing last week reported that Berkeley Berry Birch needs to find 12m to “plug a capital resource requirement deficit”.

Clifford Lockyer is apparently taking a well-earned break as chairman of BBB to concentrate on his role as chief executive. Poor chap. In the past 12 months, he has had to endure a savaging from the Treasury select committee over his liquidation of the debt-laden BB&N Financial Services, as well as a separate financial investigation by the FSA, which only ended after BBB coughed up 600,000 to the liquidator “without accepting liability”.

In addition, one of BBB’s subsidiaries, Berkeley Independent Advisers, is awaiting an FSA fine, for which it has set aside 1.4m, including the costs of reviewing more than 3,000 plans sold in the three years to December 2004.

What amazes me is that the industry happily pumps money into so many of these firms. For example, Aegon, Friends Provident, Norwich Union, Scottish Widows and Skandia between them contributed heavily towards BBB’s 20m share issue in 2002.

What do they have to say as BBB appears to be sliding towards the edge? Not much, is my guess. After all, it is not as if they have not been there before, what with the same companies’ decision in 2002 to stump up 17m between them to the Millfield Partnership, another heavy loss-mak- ing IFA which hopes to finally move into the black in 2005 after years of disastrous losses.

This leaves me wondering about the recent announcement from Standard Life to the effect that it has bought a 20 per cent stake in the Tenet Group network. This is the first acquisition of its kind by Standard and puts it on an equal footing with Tenet’s existing shareholders, Norwich Union, Friends Provident and Aegon, which have all increased their stakes to around 20 per cent in light of the deal.

Standard would not say last week how much it paid for its stake in Tenet but life and pensions chief executive Trevor Matthews was quoted as saying: “Whichever way you look at it, Tenet is an excellent investment opportunity for Standard Life.”

Based on previous experiences of life office investment, if I were Tenet chief executive Simon Hudson, I would be an extremely worried man.

If there is something that really gets on my wick, it is loud claims by newspapers that any minor volte-face by the Government is entirely down to their crusading on the issue.

Last week, we saw another example of that in a reply by Dianne Hayter to my comments about the FSA consumer panel, of which she is vice-chairman. She makes all sorts of claims about the achievements of the panel, whose valiant efforts helped to change the FSA’s mind on this, that and the other issue.

For example, the “successful campaign” to make sure the FSA investigated self-certified mortgages. Or the panel’s “major success” in persuading the Treasury that home-reversion schemes needed to be regulated.

As if the hundreds of other campaigners, such as the Consumers’ Association and trade bodies such as the CML, plus scores of articles written by – wait for it – journalists, had nothing to do with the Treasury’s U-turn.

But it is one of its other “triumphs” that really sums up the panel. After the FSA’s very public tussle with Legal & General over endowment sales, the regulator commissioned a report into enforcement by one of its senior staff, David Strachan. Ms Hayter proudly notes how the report agrees with the panel that the enforcement process “needs to be fair not only to those who are subject to it but must also take proper account of the interests of those consumers who have suffered detriment…”.

For such a statement of the obvious to be regarded as some kind of accomplishment by the panel reveals just how pathetically ineffective this tinpot outfit really is.


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