Major providers are still flaunting FCA inducement rules designed to stop firms unfairly influencing advisers.
A year on from finalised guidance on inducements and nearly three years after a ‘Dear CEO’ letter uncovered firms working around the commission ban, the regulator wrote to 23 providers, advisers, and asset managers asking for more details of distribution agreements and hospitality benefits.
The regulator said it would not be making the findings of its review public.
But Fund Strategy sister publication Money Marketing has obtained a letter from the FCA to one of the UK’s largest providers detailing a host of events it deems to have broken its rules.
The letter shows providers are still taking advisers to comedy shows, pop concerts and golf tournaments where the FCA “would question if they were capable of enhancing service to customers”.
However, firms warn the “pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction” and valuable relationships between advisers and providers are being destroyed by stringent rules that will see hospitality cease entirely.
So why are companies clinging onto the practices of the past?
Is there evidence the recipients of hospitality are influenced?
And is the regulator’s approach of individual negotiation really the most transparent and effective way to improve the market?
Following final guidance on inducements published in January 2014, Sesame was fined £1.6m for operating “pay to play” distribution deals between 2012 and 2014.
The fine signalled a renewed regulatory crackdown on the relationships between advisers and providers. However, the letter, dated 30 September 2015, clearly shows firms side-stepping the rules through corporate hospitality.
In the letter the regulator not only takes aim at the type of events, but also admonishes the firm for inviting senior advice executives who “are more likely to be in a position to influence decisions taken by the firm which affects clients”.
In addition, it challenges the company for purchasing “disproportionately” expensive tickets.
Records submitted by the firm show it provided hospitality at events, including two pop concerts, stand-up comedy, sailing and West End theatre.
Another large provider was told it should not be offering advisers hospitality at international cricket matches.
“Flying someone abroad is probably excessive but I don’t understand how an occasional sporting event can be classed as inducement.”
The FCA says: “The information provided did not demonstrate that such hospitality was designed to enhance service to customers, and given the nature of such events we would question if they were capable of enhancing service to customers.”
The letter also questions advisers’ attendance at a racing meet in addition to an investment workshop held as part of the event. Fairer Finance managing director James Daley says: “While it’s undoubtedly true that spending a day out with a contact can cement a better relationship than might be possible over a coffee or a sandwich, the harsh truth is that better relationships lead to bias and prejudice.
“If you’re an IFA, your job is to sell the most suitable products to your client. But if you start to take hospitality from one or more providers, your independence is compromised.”
Former Which? financial services policy lead Dominic Lindley agrees.
He says: “The RDR was intended to remove the influence of product providers over the advice process. It is disappointing providers are still trying to influence advisers by offering expensive corporate hospitality. It is questionable consumers get any benefit from their pension company paying for advisers to attend concerts and sporting events.
“The FCA should name the firms involved in its review and remind the relevant approved persons within the firms they are responsible for signing off the overall policy on corporate hospitality. Product providers should concentrate on providing advisers with services which genuinely benefit customers such as training events and improvements to IT systems.”
The regulator also picks apart the firm’s decision to give the most expensive tickets to a golf tournament to senior management and not to people who make personal recommendations.
It warns although senior staff at advice firms may not give advice themselves, “the more senior the individual to whom the benefit is offered, the greater the risk that the firm’s decision-making is influenced”.
In addition, the FCA says an agreement between the provider and a major network falls short of what the regulator expects. It notes the provider paid for the network’s training events at the market rate, when in fact it should be charged at cost price.
Provider chiefs say they are now clear on the rules.
Aegon chief executive Adrian Grace says: “The rules have become a lot clearer over the last six to nine months. When the RDR came in there was a lot of grey. We absolutely abide by the rule of law and have no doubt about where the line is drawn.”
Standard Life UK and Europe chief executive Paul Matthews says: “It is quite clear the regulator is very supportive of events where we are meeting up to talk about how we can help advisers to help customers and can show this can lead to better customer outcomes.”
It’s good to talk
Despite the regulator’s intervention, some providers have hit back claiming the “pendulum has swung too far” and the latest crackdown on inducements could actually harm customers.
A senior director at a provider who wished to remain anonymous says: “Have we got to the point where relationships that could actually improve customer service and value are not being allowed to happen? We need to look into whether attendance at training events – which might be accompanied by some entertainment – is less than it once was. Actually we could be damaging customer outcomes by not allowing normal commerce to occur.”
The director adds the growth of restricted advisers clouds the issue.
They say: “There is another trend in the marketplace towards restricted advisers who are choosing only to go with one or two providers. I do not know how you divorce that trend – which is supported by the regulator – from looking at any evidence of a provider being favoured because of the hospitality they might provide.
“In that climate it is very hard to see whether hospitality is swaying decisions.”
Simplybiz’s New Model Business Academy managing director and former Tenet head of business development Tom Hegarty has sympathy with providers navigating the FCA’s guidance.
He says: “Every industry has corporate boxes for entertainment, is it any different if financial services firms have a meal and some drinks beforehand? Flying someone abroad is probably excessive but I don’t understand how an occasional sporting event can be classed as inducement.
“It’s using a sledgehammer to smash a nut, why didn’t the regulator take action directly with those providers who broke rules which have always been in place?”
However, it appears life companies are not the only organisations overstepping inducements boundaries. Wingate Financial Planning director Alistair Cunningham says March and April is “cowboy season”, which sees firms blatantly incentivising advisers to place business with them.
One email sent to advisers by Arterial Capital Management offers an “exclusive” invitation to Silverstone, including helicopter chauffeur to the track, if advisers introduce at least £500,000 into any of the firm’s enterprise investment schemes.
Arterial could not be reached for comment while the FCA says it does not comment on individual firms.
An FCA spokesman says: “Since the RDR was introduced, we have kept a close eye on inducements between product providers and advisers. Following concerns raised by a review in 2013 we published new guidance in 2014 and committed to undertaking a further review last year. That work is now complete.
“Our intention in undertaking this work had been in part for it to inform our consultation on Mifid II, which includes new European standards to lessen and control conflicts of interest. However, the European Commission has recently confirmed a delay in the implementation date of Mifid II, which we support.
“In the light of this we have decided we will now add the key findings from the latest inducements thematic review on our website, along with a reminder of our expectations. This will be available over the coming weeks.
“Our 2014 guidance is clear. We have been liaising closely with the industry since we published it and now it is for firms to make sure any payments, hospitality or gifts are proportionate, in consumers’ interest and that potential conflicts are well managed.”
Customers will suffer from inducements crackdown
I do not think post-commission the kind of stuff that used to go on, hitting sales targets and being in exotic locations, is OK – that needs reform. But has the pendulum swung too far? Have we got to the point where relationships that could improve customer service and value are not being allowed to happen? We need to look into whether attendance at training events – which might be accompanied by some entertainment – is less than it once was. Actually we could be damaging customer outcomes by not allowing normal commerce to occur.
We are seeing people are withdrawing the things they used to do – so there will be more distant relationships between advisers and providers. And I am not convinced is this in customers’ best interests.
There is another trend in the marketplace towards restricted advisers who are choosing only to go with one or two providers. I do not know how you divorce that trend – which is supported by the regulator – from looking at any evidence of a provider being favoured because of the hospitality they might provide. In that climate it is very hard to see whether hospitality is swaying decisions.
It is also a massive administrative burden if you have to justify every cup of coffee in terms of customer benefit – I’m not sure that is time well spent. There should be clear guidelines detailing de minimis amounts and advisers should be prepared to declare what corporate hospitality they have attended.
There are times where people have specific circumstances – an emergency need for cash or if there has been a mistake – and because the adviser has a good relationship with the provider they can bypass the call waiting queue and get something done. If those relationships disappear I do not think the FCA’s actions improve outcomes at all.
Anonymous provider director
Five star treatment will bias advisers
Corporate entertaining has long been a part of the way people do business – not just in the UK, but the world over. Full disclosure: in my days as a journalist, I was the beneficiary of many a trip to the football or the races – even some trips abroad. And whatever the event, no expense was ever spared.
In my line of business, the justification was the same as it is everywhere else – “it’s all about relationship building”.
While it’s undoubtedly true that spending a day out with a contact can cement a better relationship than might be possible over a coffee or a sandwich, the harsh truth is better relationships lead to bias and prejudice. If you are an IFA, your job is to sell the most suitable products to your client. But if you start to take hospitality from one or more providers, your independence is compromised.
We all like to think we are able to keep our independence, even if one insurer is entertaining us and another is not. I spent years as a journalist telling myself that lie.
But the reason companies plough millions into corporate entertaining is it works. Journalists are more likely to quote – or give an easier time to – the people who have wined and dined them. IFAs are more likely to push more business towards a provider that has given them the five star treatment.
For journalists, that means you cannot trust everything you read in the press. Not exactly a revelation. For IFAs, it means customers may be getting a bad deal because you have got a soft spot for a provider who takes you to the footie. The regulator is right to crack down on inducements. It will not be popular – but that is why it is a job for the regulator. Left to their own devices, companies would never give it up.
James Daley is managing director of Fairer Finance