Troubles multiply for life industry watchdog: Nearly two years after it was mooted, the Personal Investment Authority remains in doubt. Paul Durman explains why

Click to follow
IT IS nearly two years since Sir Kenneth Clucas delivered his report on the regulation of the scandal-torn life insurance, pensions and investments markets. And yet the odds on producing the new regulator he envisaged look only marginally better than evens.

The fact that the prospects for the Personal Investment Authority are even this good is thanks largely to the disunity of its opponents. Banks, life insurers and financial advisers all have reservations - but not the same reservations.

The PIA and its chairman, Joe Palmer, are at present engaged in another round of behind-the-scenes negotiations to secure compromises from the various dissidents.

One of the important stumbling blocks remains the extent of practioner involvement in the running of the PIA which, by law, is supposed to be a self-regulating organisation. The issue has already cost it the support of Standard Life, the mutual giant that withdrew from the initiative after refusing to accept a PIA board with a majority of public interest directors.

Andrew Large, chairman of the Securities and Investments Board, the senior financial regulator that has shaped the development of the PIA, still has a strong card to play to bring recalcitrant institutions into line.

Under section 11 of the 1986 Financial Services Act, Mr Large could seek government authority to withdraw recognition from Fimbra and Lautro, the financial services industry's existing regulators.

He could then force their members to join the new body on the grounds that 'the continued recognition of the organisation is undesirable having regard to the existence of one or more other organisations which have been or are to be recognised'.

This would leave life insurers and financial advisers with a choice between the PIA and direct regulation by the SIB itself. The latter would like to shed its own direct regulatory powers, though it cannot do so without new legislation.

The indecision and rows that have characterised the PIA's 18-month history are partly a consequence of its origins. Sir Kenneth's original brief was driven not by demands for higher standards of investor protection but by the need to tackle the financial instability of the existing system.

Fimbra, reponsible for 5,800 mainly small firms of investment advisers, has proved unable to meet its compensation liabilities and has had to be bailed out by the life insurers whose products its members sell.

But just over a year ago the PIA's plans were blown dramatically off course when Mr Large called for 'a step change in standards and practices'. It had to start again.

This was a little like trying to turn a pack mule into a racehorse. They both have four legs and can carry weight on their backs, but the expectations one has of them are entirely different.

The politically astute Mr Large was responding to the widely held view that self- regulation is not working. For many at the Palace of Westminster the evidence of failure must look irrefutable.

Robert Maxwell's plundering of the Mirror Group's pension schemes and the personal pension transfers debacle that broke just before Christmas are perhaps the most high profile systemic failures.

One does not need to look hard for further examples. Hundreds of elderly people have suffered after being encouraged, in the late 1980s, to mortgage their homes to release money for investment.

Sixteen life insurance companies have incurred fines from Lautro, their regulator, most of them for failing to prevent unsatisfactory conduct by their sales people.

To add to the general picture of negligence, greed and incompetence, there is a smattering of outright fraud.

Mr Large's difficulty is that the Government is not interested in new legislation. It has enough on its plate without getting involved in an area of sprawling complexity where there are no votes and no political victories to be won.

The financial services industry may involve the savings of millions, it may employ hundreds of thousands of people, but for the Government it is not worth the bother.

Mr Large's solution, as outlined in his review of the two-tier system of regulation last year, has been to get tough with the junior regulators.

Most financial services companies remain wedded to the illusory benefits of self- regulation. It often seems to offer them the worst of all worlds - enormously expensive and burdensome regulation by a system that is frequently represented as being run in their self-interest.

The SIB's handling of the recent personal pensions transfers scandal scarcely gives cause for comfort.

Information from the KPMG Peat Marwick report into pension transfer cases was released in a way that could have been calculated to do maximum damage to the life insurance industry.

The report provided depressing evidence that life insurance salesmen collected sufficient details about their customers' financial circumstances in fewer than one out of 10 pension transfer cases. The SIB appears to have been unconcerned that this was represented as meaning that up to 90 per cent of the 500,000 people who have arranged transfers have been misadvised.

One pensions expert said: 'Andrew Large seems to have gone over the top. The general feeling is he is playing a political game. It is wrong to imply that in all the cases where the fact find was incomplete, that there was a mis-sale.

'KPMG have produced something which, at the end of the day, is bloody useless. The only people who have benefited out of this are KPMG.'

One insurer, with a sizeable share of the pension transfers market, has hired an independent consultant to produce a riposte to the KPMG report.

The Consumers' Association and the Labour Party have called on the Government to abandon self-regulation in favour of statutory regulation. Prudential Corporation and, more recently, Standard Life and Scottish Amicable have also rallied behind this banner.

A sceptical Treasury is doubtful whether a statutory regulator could deliver significantly better results than the existing system.

It is certainly hard to see what would be achieved by introducing tougher rules. Although one can quibble about ponderous minutiae there is little wrong with the current principles and core rules which, for example, require firms to deal fairly with their customers and ensure the suitability of any investment recommendation.

However, a statutory regulator could tackle two of the problems of the existing system. Firstly, it would need to be properly accountable to Parliament. Secondly, more important for investors, it could bring about a change of ethos.

For all the fine words about the importance of investor protection that one hears from the leaders of the financial services industry, their credibility is continually undermined by the running of their companies.

Life Association of Scotland recently provided a striking example of this when it was fined because senior management had ignored the legitimate concerns of its compliance staff.

Perhaps more telling is the KPMG report on pension transfers. Whatever its flaws, it illustrates a shocking lack of attention to even the most basic requirements of investor protection.

(Photographs omitted)