World of the bland leading the blind

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The Independent Online

The acid test of the Financial Service Authority's plan to abolish polarisation of advisers into either tied or independent is whether the new scheme will sell any more products to the Great British Consumer, who is notoriously under-insured, under-pensioned and under-invested.

By that light, I believe the FSA's handiwork deserves a small cheer. Most people are happy to go to tied agents because they have a well-known brand of a major bank or insurance company behind them. Those agents will become "multi-tied" in the jargon, meaning they will be able to sell the financial products of several providers instead of just those of their employer.

That should be to the good, as far as it goes, because in one visit the average punter will now be exposed to a wider range of products. As long as the sales person complies with the rules about getting to know the client and recommending suitable policies or investments, both sides should benefit.

That is why the FSA chairman, Sir Howard Davies, has felt sufficiently confident to scrap polarisation: he believes the new overriding obligations of sellers to behave properly and responsible have rendered the old system redundant.

But it is notoriously difficult to police what is essentially a private conversation between agent and customer, however much has to be put in writing and signed for. And agents will still be paid by commission, which will continue to give them the temptation to push the product that pays them more, rather than the one that is best for the customer.

And the FSA's proposals fly in the face of the public's repeatedly expressed preference for independent advice. I sympathise with David Severn, the FSA executive who has drawn up these proposals, for whatever the British public says, it hates paying fees, which are the best way of ensuring that advice is unbiased and therefore independent.

Nevertheless, Mr Severn's blueprint will restrict independent advisers to the ranks of the wealthy and those few, like Molly Corcoran in our page one story, who may be less well-off but are committed to paying fees rather than commission. The independent financial adviser (IFA) will become a rare and exotic bird, the equivalent of the private bank. Indeed, I predict that private banks will discreetly rush to form alliances with the best of the IFAs.

As Sir Howard said this week that his aim was to secure long-term improvements for consumers through greater access to advice, I hope he will have been dismayed to see these proposals lauded by the Association of British Insurers on behalf of the big battalions and criticised by the Consumers' Association. I would certainly have preferred to see those two bodies taking precisely the opposite points of view.

It is a pity that, after months of cogitating, the FSA could not come up with more imaginative ideas.

As it is, within a few years financial advice will be almost entirely the preserve of the banks and insurance companies: the bland leading the blind.


A CAUTIONARY postscript to my report two weeks ago about buying euros. When I went to my local branch of Royal Bank of Scotland the cashier was adamant that my old European currencies had first to be translated into sterling before they could then be converted into euros, a peculiar banking perversion known as triangulation.

Unlike most customers, I was also in touch with head office about the transaction, and their staff spotted that I had been the victim of an error. Official Royal Bank policy is to convert the old currencies directly into euros, cutting out a stage of buying and selling.

The upshot is that I am to collect an extra €16.11, or nearly 10 per cent on the €175 the branch originally paid me.

Other banks have different policies, but if you are a Royal Bank customer do not be lured into the expensive pastime known as triangulation.


William Kay is personal finance editor of 'The Independent'

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