Financial Conduct Authority says money managers are ripping savers off with unjustifiable charges

Personal finance writers have for years highlighted that stockmarket index tracking funds are better value for most savers. Now the FCA has woken up to the issue, but are its reform proposals up to snuff?

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The Independent Online

Saints be praised! The Financial Conduct Authority has at last got around to telling all of you who have savings linked to the stockmaker something that the better personal finance writers have been telling you for years: you’re being ripped off. 

I’ll qualify that. If you save via a fund managed by someone claiming they can beat the market for you, you’re being ripped off. Probably. Ditto the people who act as trustees for your pension scheme. 

Of course, the FCA doesn’t quite express it in those terms. Its press release actually reads: “FCA finds weak price competition in some areas of the asset management sector.”

It was issued on the back of a windy report of more than 200 pages. That report, now wake up at the back, found that most "actively managed" funds fail to beat their benchmarks after charges. You and your savings would be much better served by a cheapy fund that tracks a stock market index such as the FTSE 100. They charge less, and costs have been falling. Not so actively managed funds, for which most managers charge about the same, despite wide variations in performance. Their fees haven't changed in years.

By levying their annual management charges as a percentage of your savings, they also get paid regardless of whether they do well or not. And they have a nasty habit of sneaking in other costs they don’t tell you about, while doing their damnedest to make sure you stay put. 

“On average these costs are not justified by higher returns,” says the FCA. No kidding. 

And there's more: “Fund objectives are not always clear, and performance is not always reported against an appropriate benchmark.

“Despite a large number of firms operating in the market the asset management sector as a whole has enjoyed sustained, high profits over a number of years with significant price clustering.”

It might also have mentioned that high charges also ensure that the bank accounts of under performing fund managers, not to mention the advisers that steer business their way, are also kept filled. Oh, and the marketing men take a nice cut too. 

Money management is an industry grown complacent and fat, largely because regulators have been focussed on other problems, such as those caused by banks and insurance companies. Fund managers enjoying the high life by over charging does rather pale by comparison to their sins. However, the economic situation makes the need for reform pressing.

“In today's world of persistently low interest rates, it is vital that we do everything possible to enable people to accumulate and earn a return on their savings which can meet their lifetime needs. To achieve this, we need to ensure that competition in asset management works effectively to minimise the cost of investment,” explains the FCA’s chief executive Andrew Bailey. 

So what to do about it? “The FCA has proposed a significant package of remedies that seek to make competition work better in this market, and protect those least able to engage actively with their asset manager,” he declares. 

To be fair, the FCA has some good ideas: it wants to make it easier for retail investors to get into better value investment funds; it wants charges to be made clearer and to see fund mangers improving their communication with savers; and it also suggests regulating the advisors who steer pension trustees into poor value actively managed funds. 

Sensible, yes; radical, no. With nearly 2000 funds kicking about, there’s a strong case for the FCA to  shut the really bad ones down (it could ask the Government for the powers to do so if that proves necessary). 

Failing that, to coin a phrase that his been much in vogue of late, how about publishing a “basket of deplorables” list?

Another idea might be requiring money managers to declare that tracker funds could be better value for investors in their marketing. You could probably hear the howls of anguish in the City at the prospect of that in Inverness. 

Calm down chaps. I’m just spit-balling here!

The problem with the proposals is that they don’t move us on much from things that have already been talked about and/or tried, to limited effect.  

In the meantime, I suppose it’s up to us. If enough of us pulled our money out of rotten actively managed funds, the industry might wake up and find ways of its own to provide a better, and cheaper, service. 

So it's time for us all to move. Unless, that is, you happen to be one of those lucky people who has managed to stumble upon one of those fund managers capable of defying gravity by consistently beating the market. They’re really quite rare. Those that can do so after charges are about as common as snow leopards and they’re no easier to to find.