If the concept of a Transparency task force conjures up a vision of covert operations and the Night Manager, you wouldn’t be far off the mark. At times during yesterday’s day-long meeting I sensed the competing forces of the Global Financial Services Industry and a gallant band of mavericks could have graced the pages of a Le Carre novel!
Steve Webb kicked things off speaking of the power of IGCs and the need for the Government to fulfil on its promise to deliver an inclusive charge cap from April 2017.
His message was clear, the Government should not allow the timeline of reform to be slowed to meet the timeline of European legislation on MIFID II and PRIPS. But the message was delivered in the best tradition of a man who this time last year was made parliamentarian of the year.
Webb’s bold and clear delivery set a tone for the rest of the day. Dr Chris Sier’s damning indictment of the financial services industry for supressing the data and the data analysis was given greater credibility by numerous people in the room whom Chris had worked for in his exposures. Colin Meech of Unison attested to the difficulties set in the way of Sier’s search for truth about the true cost to the council tax payer of the 953 fund managers providing it with services.
In a very grave but engaging talk, Barry Gardiner, Shadow Minister for Energy and Climate Change explained how he had been unable to ask questions about the carbon footprint of his own- the Parliamentary Contributory pension Fund. He had been blocked by his own trustees who clearly thought transparency on how managers such as Saracen and MFS addressed climate change in their fund management activities , of insufficient interest to trouble them.
In short , the morning gave us an insight into the lack of transparency and the ineluctability of major financial institutions. It was a fine morning with an audience totally engaged in the issues. And the morning was matched by two excellent speeches from Novarca and from Paul Trickett, speaking about Rail Pen.
To me the highlight of the day was Eric Veldpaus’ talk on a strategy to assess and benchmark value for money within a pension fund. Eric’s analysis went beyond Novarca’s established capacity to detail the “money” lost by a fund in trading to a mature and coherent exploration of how we can account for value. Novarca’s approach is to focus on value as the reduction of risk and the improvement of certainty in return. This is not the place to do the presentation justice, I will share the slides as soon as I have them. The approach seemed to add to the sum of knowledge needed to create a way to assess value for money and to benchmark the performance of a manager in delivering it.
To finish, we had a magnificent romp by Paul Trickett along the voyage of discovery of the £20bn RailPen pension scheme as it discovered just what it was paying its private equity and Hedge Fund managers. For a fund of this size to pay £50m in fees might just be acceptable (a few of us thought), some in the room thought that £100m or £150m might be ok. Nobody in the room put their hand up to a figure of £290m.
As Paul put it- £290m is too big a number. It is a number I will remember the next time I pay for a train ticket.
There were many other presentations and panel session on what was a packed day. The event was brilliantly organised by Andy Agethangelou and his team. In terms of Value for Money it was superb – thanks to Pinsent Mason’s hospitality.
I was left at the end to say a few words, I was looking at the audience but in my peripheral vision I could look down on the City of London in all its opulence. As I write, people are working hard to prevent people like Steve and Barry and Paul and Chris and Eric from doing their jobs. New walls are being built between us and our money, often in the name of transparency. I fully expect the insurers to exploit the failure of the IGCs thus far to get a proper means of collecting and analysing data. They will create a way to sanitise the numbers, to pacify policyholders and the Regulator so that they and the fund managers they employ can revert to Business as Usual.
But there are people in the room who are wise to this. I am not so much an expert as to be able to do what Eric and Paul have done and forensically examine the numbers, but I have the passion and the words to promote best practice.
Days like yesterday sustain us, and make the difficult times when we have to fight against the suppression of truth a whole lot easier. Thanks to the people in the room and the vision of Con Keating, Chris Sier and Andy Agethangelou in making it happen.