It happened on the way to Essex (warning: dangerous information)

 I was in the car, on the way to a client listening to the radio. Possibly I should have stuck with my own music, but decided to listen to some “news”. It was Thursday (yesterday) and the media was agitated about pension charges. The panel discussion was about as badly informed as it gets and if this was designed to reduce or remove confusion about pensions, then it failed spectacularly even on explaining the difference between a Defined Benefit and a Defined Contribution pension and proving the adage “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”. Why a sensible IFA wasn’t asked to speak I have no dangerous-to-knowidea. So I had better explain.

Firstly there are broadly two types of pension. A Defined Benefit, so called because it defines what you will get. More commonly known as a final salary scheme. This sort of pension is based entirely on your service and your final salary. Each year of service in such a scheme is built up at the rate of a fraction each each. So take a doctor or nurse, 1/80th each year. So a doctor or teacher that works for 30 years, the sum is 30/80ths (37.5%) of their final salary = annual pension (for life). Ok these schemes are changing, but the principles are remaining pretty much the same.

The other type of pension is an investment based pension. If you are employed and in such a scheme it is often called a defined contribution scheme… it won’t surprise you to learn that it is aptly named, because the contribution (the amount paid in by you and/or the employer)  is defined – eg 5% of salary. However as its just an investment, the value of the pot will change… daily. So the value you end up with is based on what the pot is worth.

The row is over the charges applied to investment based schemes and whether they actually offer value for money as a result. A lot of hot air on the radio resulted in my exasperation fogging my windscreen, not a good idea on the M25 when it is grey and wet. There were a lot of inaccurate statements and very little placed into a context. So at the risk of boring you, I will attempt to do so.

Back in the 1980’s investment based pensions began to take the place of final salary schemes. Why? because of the liberated stock market (big bang) and a desire for people like you and I to capitalise on capitalism. There was also a growing (albeit muted) appreciation that people are living longer and therefore the old style final salary pensions were going to have to pay out for longer, costing employers a lot more money. Divorce rates were also rising, meaning that the spouses (and ex-spouses benefits) might also last a very long time. The rise of retail investment funds (Unit Trusts) which only began life in 1931 (thanks to M&G)  became more widely available. Pension companies (a considerable number back then) ran their own investment funds using their own fund managers. Financial advisers were largely sales people that worked for pension providers. They were paid to sell pensions (and other products) from commission in the same way that pretty much every other type of selling works… the more you sell the more you earn (as a salesman/person)

Now you and I might think it a pretty bad idea that people are paid a commission to sell financial products. The advantage of hindsight is a wonderful thing isn’t it. However, most people, even in 2013, do not wake up and think that they should start a pension, or take out life assurance and sadly some people (most) need to be “sold” the wisdom of doing so (unless it isn’t appropriate for them = very few people). So “advisers” needed an incentive to incentivise the public. Yes it was a silly system, but in January it all changed. Every adviser must charge fees – properly. Surprisingly people are not jumping up and down with enthusiasm about this (on both “sides”).

Taking a step back in time, commission was paid based on the products type, the premium and the term of the “policy”… more for more. Then factor in some pension companies thought that they could offer a bit more for the “same thing” .  This led to bias (you are not surprised). Bias between financial product and also financial provider. Simple example… you have £300 a  month to invest. You could do so into a variety of “products” a pension, an endowment or a PEP (old form of ISA). The commission might range from £5,000 to £9 for a PEP.

Eh? well endowments paid very large commissions, they were generally 25 year policies and if I recall paid more than a pension. A pension though has tax relief but couldn’t be touched until 50 (back then) most though retired at 65, an extra 15 years on the policy term (commission is related to policy term too). A PEP, well it doesn’t have a term, its not a policy. It was a single investment of £300 that happened to recur. 3% of £300 is £9… each month. Not many advisers were going to advise a PEP not because they thought it was bad, but you would have to sell a lot of them to make a living. Other products though were “contracts” so you were agreeing to pay for 25 years. The product provider (names you know and possibly loathe for a variety of reasons) had a separate agreement with the adviser (well the adviser firm). Rather than pay £9 a month, they paid it upfront (£9x12monthsx25years = £2,700) for example. How? (with only £300 a month going into the pot)… it would surely take 9 months before £2,700 was even in the pot right? Well thats where some very “clever” accounting and charges and types of units comes into play. The details varied from provider to provider, making it hard for even good advisers to accurately compare one with another. In short, the commission was really a loan, if the investor (you) reduced or stopped paying, the commission loan would have to be back in full or in part.

This approach led to two key things. Firstly, people took out policies that they didn’t need or couldn’t afford. As a result advisers had to pay back commissions, invariably leading to a very high rate of staff turnover. Secondly there was an obvious pressure to sell, sell, sell… which meant a focus on new business and not servicing existing clients. The regulation at the time was as divided as the industry, independent advisers regulated by FIMBRA and Tied advisers by LAUTRO. The latter working for the insurance company, the former doing your shopping. However, even being independent did not prevent bias between solution (product) and provider selected. So in 1995… that’s 18 years ago!  commission disclosure was introduced and at around the same time a single regulator was introduced (the Personal Investment Authority – PIA). You (and the adviser) could both see what the adviser would be paid. However both relied on standard projected rates of returns to work out which provider was cheaper than the other. Still smoke and mirrors, but in all honesty, nothing to do with the advisers.

Stay, with me…if you can. The regulator then decided that advisers should write proper reports, “reasons why letters” and also provide better data about who they were placing business with. The profession of advice began to evolve (slowly catching up with the IFP Institute of Financial Planning, born in the UK in 1984).  The PIA became the FSA in 2001 and with it decided to end polarisation (tied/IFA) and added a third option “multi-tied” which confused things even more and enabled certain high street Banks to give the impression that they weren’t only peddling their own stuff. However to be independent, you had to at least offer clients the option of paying a fee rather than a commission. In January 2013, advisers were to be defined as either Independent or restricted and with both options, if you are arranging any form of investment, a fee must be agreed and paid – not a commission. Hooray, we finally got there and with another version of regulation – the FCA. In practice the regulator has said, your advice must not be biased and your client must agree the amount they pay for it. The results are yet to be seen, but in reality, most people cannot or will not pay for financial advice, because most people’s experience has been bad, sold duff products, that didn’t deliver and weren’t serviced.

The role of the adviser has altered dramatically, for all but the dinosaurs or stupid. A financial adviser is ADVISING you what you should do. A good adviser will be doing proper cash-flow planning, working with you on your actual goals and figuring out what you need to do to get there. A great adviser will also be helping you to assess risk and the returns you need, adjusting your portfolio and minimising the number of bad decisions you would otherwise make. A brilliant adviser will also keep you disciplined and focussed on what your goals are and help you avoid the 98% of the financial media that is a complete red-herring to your goals and life story. These people tend to call themselves financial planners, wanting to emphasise the planning work and disassociate themselves from selling products.

In short the skill set has evolved. You wouldn’t believe the level of research that is done these days. This is possible because of better technology and frankly better skills and a much better context. The truth, as painful and sad as it may be is that we have all messed this up at some point. Investors in believing in “free advice” and advisers in not being clear that it wasn’t, perhaps afraid to be. The product providers are guilty of making highly complex charging structures in order to pay for sales, and they have also effectively bought and bribed business. The fund management industry has overcharged and underperformed, manipulated data and set in motion a system that rewards big bets. The regulator has invariably focussed on the wrong things and hasn’t evolved as quickly to cope with some very complex financial instruments. In fairness though, it has had to take on more and more – now it is also taking on regulation of consumer credit – everything from a washing machines to a Ferrari (or Aston to Zanussi). However, the myth that is still perpetuated is that investing is easy and it is cheap. It is neither. I don’t care what massive “discount brokers” say or “money saving experts” they have all come from the same place and are focussing on the wrong things.

So (if you are still with me) back to the radio show. Statements about charges on pensions are very flawed, as flawed and silly as the charging structures themselves. Old style pensions were very pricey by today’s standards. Sometimes it is worth getting out of them, sometimes it isn’t. This needs careful consideration. Suggesting that 25% of a fund will be wiped out by charges is a foolish thing to say. It won’t, because you cannot invest for free. The charges are projections about a future that will not even happen. Returns are unknown. You are unlikely to have the same investment in 30 years time that you have now. The real menaces to investors are these:

1. Not reviewing your portfolio at least annually (and not being disciplined)

2. Not having clearly defined goals and objectives

3. Not assessing your attitude to risk and ability to cope with market volatility and therefore figuring out what returns you can accept and therefore what it will produce.

4. Running out of time, or money.

5. Not having a proper financial plan, that tells you when you have reached your goal and have “enough” (by your definition of “enough”)

6. The utter rubbish talked,written, recorded,filmed about money and investing

7. What the FTSE does is largely irrelevant to you

8. Government policy that messes with and creates a tax regime so complex that you need to pay an expert’s expert to decipher it.

9. Inflation, inflation, inflation, inflation…

10. The myth that you can get something for nothing, falling for the latest investment fad or fear.

You can have a successful investing experience, but you also need to be realistic. There are, and always have been some good advisers, some good fund managers, some good product providers and some good regulation. Life is not as binary as many would like to suggest. Over the years I have met some thoroughly decent people from all these camps. I have met advisers that I would trust with my own money – or my widows/children’s.

What’s more, this is not new. I set up my firm 14 years ago. I created a product neutral playing field, charging the same fee structure for investing in any form, in any product. I removed commission from new protection policies (which by the way is still available to advisers). I began to develop a proper investment philosophy and service and gradually began to use proper cash-flow planning. I have evolved, grown and learned. I made mistakes along the way, taking too long to improve in some areas and doing others too soon. That’s life. However I have remained consistent to the notion that my job is to improve my clients position, not make it worse. My long-term interests are best served by serving yours. Yes the financial services industry has a lot to answer for, it is miles from perfect.

One final point, here in Britain we seem to think that someone else will pay, that things are actually without cost. The very real and difficult truth is that we don’t really want to acknowledge that things have a price. Whether this is social security, care of the elderly, good education, quality teachers, good government, protecting children on the internet, a watchdog for the police, media, government, NHS, utility companies, stock market, financial advisers…or helping refugees and decommissioning weapons. Everything has a price and pretending that it doesn’t or it can be cheap is… well its like that big river in Egypt…. denial.

Footnote: By the way, the regulator does not think investors are capable of working out charges in a percentage format. They want charges expressed in monetary terms. So what hope do we have if people cannot even calculate what 1% is?

Dominic Thomas – Solomons IFA