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Standard strife

Three years ago, Standard Life&#39s managers were fighting the biggest battle of their careers – the battle to keep the company mutual.

They won but Standard Life&#39s mutuality is now under attack again and this time the company&#39s management, under new chief executive Iain Lumsden, faces an even harder struggle.

Lumsden and his board are facing unprecedented personal criticism over their management of the giant insurer. They are fighting to protect a battered brand, to reassure faltering policyholders and to convince IFAs that their products are still worth selling.

But whatever they say, and however many expensive consultancies they employ to say it, the board is presiding over a company that is fast falling from grace. Some problems look as if they will not go away. Others could be solved if only this Scottish behemoth could be persuaded to change.

The first problem is its financial strength. There is no doubt that Standard Life remains financially secure. But there is no doubt that it is considerably weakened, and that its stubborn position on equities throughout 2001 and 2002 has cost it its competitive edge. In those two years, Standard&#39s with-profits fund lost roughly twice that of its rivals Legal & General, Norwich Union and Prudential.

There are now serious questions about Standard Life&#39s capacity to smooth as powerfully as its competitors, at least in the short term. There are also fears about its ability to return to equities if a recovery emerges.

Its hefty market value reductions are prudent but many IFAs understandably resent that the MVRs came as late as autumn 2002. By that time, thousands of investors had fled with more than their shares of the assets.

There are also reasonable anxieties over prospects for Standard Life&#39s £3bn book of with-profits bonds, much of which was sold near the market peak.

Many intermediaries say they are still happy to recommend Standard Life but the fact that others have lost faith in the insurer must be deeply worrying for a company so reliant on IFA business.

All of this is linked to Standard Life&#39s second major problem – communication.

When it comes to performance data, MVRs, asset allocation, and the liability profile of the with-profits fund, very little information is out there. Anyone who asks how an MVR has been calculated or questions how a client&#39s asset share has been worked out, will get little joy. If you ring up querying the fund&#39s financial strength, you will simply be told to read the report by Standard & Poor&#39s.

Last year, it told its salesforce to play down the scale of losses incurred in 2001.A memo instructed representatives to avoid discussing the £5bn fall in free assets.

“The information should be used on a purely reactive basis,” the memo said. “If we take a more proactive approach, we may end up highlighting these figures which otherwise may not have received much coverage. There may be some journalists who will highlight the fall in free assets but we should not raise the profile ourselves.”

It is no wonder that confidence among Standard Life&#39s customers – and by that I mean IFAs as well as consumers – has been shaken.

The third problem – and almost certainly at the root of them all – is Standard Life&#39s management. The company is run by a handful of actuaries, some of whom have never worked for another organisation in their careers.

Unlike many of their counterparts at quoted insurers, these executives are not used to regular maulings by analysts, shareholders and the press. They are unfamiliar with scrutiny or criticism.

Three weeks ago, I wrote an article in the Mail on Sunday, attacking Standard Life&#39s management, highlighting the botched investment strategy and the generous bonuses they pay themselves. The story was widely covered in other media.

Since then, Lumsden and his colleagues have whinged loudly that they are the victims of a media witch-hunt. Nothing could be further from the truth. When the Pru announced its results last week, its management faced more adverse comment in one day than Lumsden has had to endure in his career.

Lumsden&#39s working life is a tranquil idyll compared with his counterparts at quoted insurers who suffer daily lambastings from institutional shareholders, fund managers and City editors.

Lumsden and his board are not being victimised by the media. The only things they are victims of is their own naivete and folly.

At one point in a spate of media briefings following the worst of the coverage, Lumsden complained to a journalist on the Daily Mail that policyholders wanted him “to wear a hairshirt”.

He is wrong. Policyholders simply want their company to be run competently and accountably.

Richard Dyson is deputy personal finance editor of the Mail on Sunday. The views expressed in this article are his own and not those of Money Marketing

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