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The RDR from the sharp end

Tom Baigrie, Lifesearch managing director takes a wide-ranging look at the controversial retail ditribution review and says the FS must focus on the value of advise

This is an edited version of Tom Baigrie’s talk to the Cicero RDR Forum

Unlike Callum McCarthy, I know from 26 years of advising that incentivisation and classification are nowhere near the most important parts of what governs distribution behaviour. Culture and oversight and enforcement are far more important. If malpractice in advice is sought out and punished, it disappears fast.

Financial services distribution has been led by Callum and his predecessors for 20 years. If it is “broken”, as he asked at Gleneagles, it happened on their watch. He should perhaps have considered an apology. Had he thought in those terms for a second, the RDR would look very different.

I have been regulated since the start and in that time I have seen regulation work well and seen it utterly fail. In simple terms, it succeeds when it is acute and focused on a particular issue. It fails when it seeks to achieve theoretical market improvement with a series of new rules, rather than principles. The RDR is the most general piece of rule-based regulation that I have seen.

The key problem it seeks (or should seek) to address is that the lack of consumer and marketing confidence in financial services has created huge “gaps” between what people have and what they should have in terms of all financial provision other than debt.

Currently, in financial services the poor buy nothing but debt and the rest don’t know what to buy or how to buy it best. The trouble is regulation has rendered profitable provision of good advice to the mass market extremely difficult. Those that try, and I am one of them, end up in rooms like this, in a dance with nanny on the head of a pin called “Perfecting Advice Models”.

There is one fast-growing financial services tribe who do not do this dance. It is instructive that they are regulated very lightly, indeed hardly at all They are the bunch that specifically does not give advice. The parallel between not being tightly regulated and not being bust, indeed succeeding rudely, is one all policymakers should study closely.

Non-advice is well nigh off the FSA radar and yet it does continual damage to consumers and to consumer confidence in advice.

Its entire proposition is that advice is not normally worth paying for. But the non-advised sellers’ key societal failure is to sell only bits of what is needed as if they were all that is needed. That is how gaps are cemented in.

As a solution to the big issue of gaps, the RDR has us at a crossroads. It is an either or chance. We either follow the Treasury’s financial inclusion agenda and at the same time the FSA seeks to increase the supply of good advice to meet the needs of all those who become included or we seek to perfect advice in line with the FSA’s consumer protection agenda and continue on the current path of tightening up the quality, and thus shrinking the quantity, of the best group of advice suppliers overall – independent advisers.

There are five streams within the RDR. One is a purely technical regulatory stream ensuring that any new set of rules does not conflict with others across Europe.

Read its labyrinthine complexity and impenetrable jargon and see if you too think that it is regulatory red tape that is (intellectually) “bust”.

The financial capability stream is designed to deliver Treasury objectives and is the only one aiming at the right targets. The rest are about sorting out the supply side and they have missed the big issue there by miles.

The first of these streams, incentivisation, seeks to end what is a compromise long proven in a million markets. That commission, although imperfect, is, in a healthy culture, a generally fair and acceptable way of earning for giving advice.

To end this compromise will, in the mass market, make independent advice appear far more complex and expensive than that offered by the agents of those who can pay their salespeople salaries and bonuses from the profits of product manufacturing.

The lie that is “free advice” will live again in the marketing of the banks and insurers and fund managers.

It is not commission that is evil, it is manufacturer marketing practice offering encouragement to the unscrupulous. Both sides of that can be easily stopped by the FSA.

The other streams – sustainability, reputation and professionalism sound sensible – but proposes an incredible maze of fine dividing lines and ruinous change.

It is a bit Blairite, in that there are previous rules that could do the job but as there is no will to do the hard work of enforcement, it is easier to develop new rules and see if they somehow work.

The maze starts with Generic advice – a good intention – but leads on to primary advice, a wolf in sheep’s clothing that will destroy the concept and value of advice once and for all in the consumer’s mind because it does not need to be suitable. It is primary selling, not advice.

Beyond primary advice lie several other sorts. There is no point me defining them to you. Consumers will not care anyway. Paul Lewis gives an interesting talk in which he demonstrates that depolarisation – the last big general bit of regulation – changed the number of different types of adviser from three – independent or tied or non – to 4,731.

The RDR will increase even that insane situation geometrically. Paul calls this process “complexification”. It is a key strategy of the banks. If you complexify enough, consumers become so confused they can easily be taken advantage of.

Instead of all this, the RDR should go back to basics and focus on getting a clear gap in consumers’ and retailers’ minds between what is advice and what is just selling without regard to suitability.

Instead, the FSA, having created the specific concept of advice, as being a process where responsibility for any decision moves from the buyer to the seller, (caveat emptor becomes caveat vendor if you give advice) has utterly failed to promote or support that difference as being of value. It has left advice unvalued in the eyes of all but the wisest of consumers.

This was once the only borderline in retail financial services regulation. The clearest evidence of how irrelevant that border has become – is in the title “generic advice” as chosen by the Treasury for the review it asked Otto Thoresen to do. In FSA terms that is a regulatory breach.

“Advice” is specific, it is: “Mrs Smith you should do this.” If I say that and I am wrong, I pay before the ombudsman. When I say: “Mrs Smith a lot of people like you might think of this”, that is information. If it is wrong, I do not pay. That is why Otto clearly states in the first bold print he uses in his review: “The service can be more accurately described as providing information or guidance to people”.

The irony in the RDR is that it is the regulator’s failure to police that one line between advice and selling without responsibility and thus ensure that regulated advice is seen as being different and valuable, that is the cause of broken. If you cannot enforce one border, so that even people as well educated as Treasury ministers understand it is logic, how can you enforce the dozens envisaged within the RDR?

The first step needed for advice to flourish in scale and quality is for the FSA to promote one key truth. “If you buy with advice you are far better off than if you buy without it.” Only once the value of advice has been re-established can it withstand, in the mass market, the many changes for the better envisaged in the RDR. The RDR should be stalled until that is done. Thank you.

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