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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.
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