I had a great conversation with a new member of staff last week. This lady is (being careful how I say it) a woman of the world, perfectly sensible and in possession of sufficient intelligence to “look under the bonnet” of most issues life throws at her.
But we ventured into shark-infested waters when she told me of her attempts last year (before she joined us of course) at finding an adviser for a “friend” of hers. That in itself is no great anecdote but what came next reinforced my belief that all the money in the world will not alter the fact cowboys and charlatans are out there alive, kicking and thriving.
Our new employee had Googled some basic phrases to search out some pensions advice. Up popped a company that seemed to be serving as a broker for locating pensions advisers, suspiciously in the same style as Unbiased. Not only does it spell “advisor” incorrectly, it states very robustly its service is “free”. Great. We all flog ourselves near to death trying to “justify our expensive services” and this lot lower the bar, stating something quite simply a lie.
It reminds me of the untruths peddled by the Money Advice Service, which clearly does not give advice but claims to do so. And why have we not levied the same charge at The Pensions Advisory Service, which claims to be, and I quote: “The people who help with pensions – we offer free and impartial guidance to people with workplace and personal pensions”? Fair enough but it needs to change its name to put “guidance” in there and reinforce who pays its wages – because it is most certainly not free. As for the new Pension Wise initiative? That is, I am afraid to say, about as much use as a solar-powered foghorn.
All that aside, what raises my hackles is the fact these basic Google searches do not yield a better response from Unbiased. Who is looking after its search engine optimisation, I wonder? Probably someone from the MAS.
The internet is full of marketing abuse right at the top of page one. Scams are proliferating right under the noses of those meant to protect the public and yet the perceived reaction is woeful. I have always thought that if you simply spent the total regulatory budget on a sustained and high profile ad campaign to tell people they should only ever deal with authorised advisers (and how to check that is what happens) it would be infinitely more effective than the reactionary and esoteric regime we all work under.
It will never happen I know but I long for the day I hear that nothing has been emitted from Canary Wharf. Less truly is more when it comes to regulation: make it as easy as you possibly can and perhaps people will understand it, consumers and practitioners alike. Make something opaque and you open up all manner of ways to deviate from the straight and narrow, as we have seen so many times before. The simpler something is, the easier it is to spot the deviants and everyone can look to re-build the confidence we all want.
Tom Kean is director of Thameside Financial Planning