The Regulator Strikes Back – Barclays, fund platforms and the FSA

I quote some of an article by matthew.vincent@ft.com  which is quite brilliant (link here) – I won’t ever write this well! The Financial Times continues to provide the world’s best coverage of financial issues – thank goodness we live in a world with this kind of a free press.

 

When I heard this week that the regulator was coming down hard on financial institutions that had spent years manipulating the prices of financial products, and cynically lining their own pockets in behind-the-scenes deals, I was delighted.

When, a day later, I also discovered that Barclays had been fined £290m by UK and US authorities for attempting to rig the London interbank offered rate (Libor), I was even more pleased.

And when, yesterday, I learnt that Barclays, along with HSBC, Lloyds Banking Group and Royal Bank of Scotland, was being forced to compensate small businesses for mis-selling interest rate hedging products, my joy was unconfined.

At long last, the regulator strikes back.

But what, you may wonder, was I originally referring to? Well, my early delight had nothing to do with strong action against the banks, welcome though it is. Rather, I was celebrating the Financial Services Authority’s confirmation that it would ban fund platforms – the facilities through which we buy our investments and individual savings accounts (Isas) – from extorting any more “rebate” payments for promoting certain funds.

In the greater scheme of things, and especially in the context of Barclays’ great scheme, this practice is arguably not such a crime. All it involved was fund managers charging investors an annual fee of 1.5 per cent, and keeping quiet about the fact that they were being blackmailed into giving half of it (or more) to the platforms – ostensibly to pay for advice and administration but, given that many fund purchases involve little or no advice, in reality to have their funds feature prominently on said platforms (not to mention in their marketing blurb).

But, as I have written here many times before, it is not the amount of the charge that I have a problem with – platforms often discount these charges for investors, and the price paid by the investor is disclosed upfront. Instead, it is the horse-trading, wheeler-dealing and back-scratching (probably also backslapping) that goes on out of sight of the customer.

Only funds that have high enough charges to afford to pay these (perfectly legal, until 2014) backhanders to the platforms are promoted to investors. Only funds with high enough charges are considered for inclusion on platforms’ recommended lists.

I know of a number of low-cost fund managers who have been excluded from platforms for not being willing or able to pay their dues. Prices are therefore kept high in the interests of the managers and the platforms – not the investor.

This is not to suggest that high charges are necessarily a bad thing. In a few cases, you do get what you pay for. It’s just that these cosy deals between industry insiders distort the prices for the rest of us, who remain unaware of better value alternatives.

Sound familiar? It is precisely the same set of motivations and misaligned interests that led Barclays’ traders to believe they could stitch up the Libor and Euribor rates between them – and leave mortgage borrowers (thankfully not many in the UK) to pay the price. Any price.

These are also the “culture and values”, to quote a certain chief executive, that encouraged sales teams to push complex interest-rate hedging products – no doubt loaded with costs and commissions – on to struggling business owners, fearful of interest rate rises.

So one department manipulates the rates, and another makes customers buy insurance against it happening. It’s the sort of joined-up thinking last seen in 1920s Chicago. Clever.

Thankfully, the FSA’s action demonstrates two encouraging trends: the willingness to levy ever-larger fines on miscreants; and the determination to ensure victims of mis-selling get their money back, as is happening with payment protection insurance.

But it should establish two more: the redistribution of bank fines to customers, not to other banks in the form of perversely lower regulatory levies; and the expansion of regulatory powers to bring criminal prosecutions.

Fund management is cleaning up its act. This week brought another welcome development, as managers voluntarily decided to give investors more transparency over fees. Their trade body, the Investment Management Association, proposed “enhanced disclosure” – including figures for sharedealing commissions and stamp duty. Campaigners – including me – had been pressing for more “legally binding standards”. It seems enough public outrage and the threat of FSA action can bring about change. I’ll raise a glass of Bollinger to that.

matthew.vincent@ft.com

There is a vanity about “funds” that is annoyingly aspirant. There is something ugly about fund marketing which strokes the ego of half-baked investors and rapacious advisers. Discussions on the merits of funds are the stuff of Clapham dinner parties, the middle class equivalent of an afternoon in your high-street Ladbrokes.

The likelihood of making money from speculating on horses and funds offers useful parallels.

We are only too aware that the only people who profit from betting are the bookies.

I have a similar view on those who speculate on funds and their platform managers.

The speculator looking to buy and sell funds on a platform will find gains wiped not just by the ongoing charges but by the various transactional charges involved with buying and selling (usually discovered in charging backwaters such as “dilution levies”).

But there’s a difference. Punters have a little more savvy.

Electronic trading (and Betfair) have driven these margins down. There is more disclosure of margins in betting and (generally) a smarter consumer

Whether you buy or trade using retail platforms, you have been saddled with margins that would make a bookie blush.

It’s taking  the FSA to catalyse value for those purchasing funds.

Beware Geeks bearing gifts!

 

About henry tapper

Founder of the Pension PlayPen, Director of First Actuarial, partner of Stella, father of Olly . I am the Pension Plowman
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3 Responses to The Regulator Strikes Back – Barclays, fund platforms and the FSA

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