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James Moore: Hargreaves Lansdown at risk of overplaying its hand

  • @TheIndyBusiness

Outlook Not all supermarkets are suffering. Take Hargreaves Lansdown (HL), which is on the crest of a wave. The difference, of course, is that it sells financial services through online shelves rather than groceries (mainly) in shops.

With interest rates rooted to the floor savers have had little choice but to seek out the racier returns that the stock market can offer, even if it means taking on racier risks. HL provides a relatively simple, user-friendly way in, at an apparently competitive price.

But what this sort of supermarket can do which more conventional supermarkets can't is levy all sorts of "administration" fees on top of its headline prices.

Some of those are quite eye-popping. Executing probate when a customer dies, for example, can cost up to £600 including VAT. That's the one that has recently created the most fuss, but there are other charges knocking about too.

All this has its genesis in the Financial Conduct Authority's "retail distribution review". It demanded that firms be upfront about their charges and how they make money, with the aim of bringing some clarity to a sector where these things have in the past been decidedly murky.

Among the things barred by the review was the payment of commissions from fund managers whose wares line the virtual shelves of fund supermarkets, like the one operated by HL.

HL says it's willing to listen to its customers over the issue, and points out that it did so when an attempt to levy a higher charge for administering investment trusts when compared to other shares sparked a minor revolt.

It might be time for the company to syringe its ears again. This is a stunningly successful business that provides a valuable service to its clients. But there are dangers in taking your customers to the well too often and HL is in danger of doing that.

Tesco was a similarly successful business that failed to listen to what its customers were saying, and they defected as a result.

HL, of course, operates in financial services, where changing your service provider can be a little more difficult than just driving to the next shop up the road. But that doesn't mean it's immune if it keeps overplaying its hand.