RDR reducing access to advice for customers

The Retail Distribution Review (RDR) introduced by the UK Labour Government was aimed at improving the quality of advice provided to customers and the transparency around the charges for that advice.

With the annoucement first by Barclays in January 2011 and then by HSBC in May 2012 of their withdrawal from providing investment and Life & Pensions advice to the mass market, rather than help the customer, RDR has in fact reduced customer access to advice. Both banks have stated that the reason for their withdrawal has been that the business is no longer viable for them commercially. The additional cost of training their staff to meet the high standards laid down by RDR and, undoubtedly, the size of fines and the risks associated with mis-selling of these products, has made it unattractive for them to continue in this business.

RBS is neither fully exiting or getting behind branch-based mass market advice. Their announcement that they will be laying off 618 advice based staff is a reflection of the reality that if you move from what is perceived to be a free service (even though consumers are paying commission through the annual fees hidden in their investments) to one which is fee-based inevitably volumes will drop.

Lloyds Banking Group had been saying that they would continue to provide advice to mass market customers. However when they asked customers  about this what they  found “for the majority of our customers, demand for a fee-based financial planning advice service decreases when they have lower amounts to invest,”. As a consequence they have announced that they will only be offering advice (for a fee) to those with more than £100,000 of investable assets. They will continue to offer a non-advised service through the Halifax, Bank of Scotland and Lloyds TSB branches. Around 1,000 branch staff will be impacted by this change and will be offered either a new role or redundancy. Given this move by Lloyds Banking Group the argument for selling off Scottish Widows becomes even stronger (see http://www.itsafinancialworld.net/2012/05/why-lloyds-shoudnt-dismiss-selling.html ).

Interestingly Santander is taking a contrary position and on hearing of the layoff of the HSBC staff allegedly approached HSBC with a view to hiring those laid off.

However even Santander is now reconsidering this position. In February 2013 they are being investigated for giving poor advice following mystery shopping by the FSA uncovering poor practices. Shortly before Christmas 800 advisers were suspended for retraining. A review of strategic options is now under way. In March 2013 this concluded with the withdrawal of face-to-face advice for new customers, putting at risk 874 jobs. A new team of 150 advisors will be deployed to serve existint customers.

In April 2013 Clydesdale, Yorkshire and Co-op announced the withdrawal of advice from their branches. In their case this was supplied by Axa. According to the Financial Times, Paul Evans, chief executive of Axa UK, said he was “very disappointed” that the division “must also now withdraw this service having not found a model which balanced the regulatory requirement that the service be profitable in its own right, whilst setting advice fees at an affordable level.”

The exit is not only being seen amongst the big players in the market. The building societies are also withdrawing from the market. In early 2011 Norwich  & Peterborough Building Society sold their sales force to Aviva and withdrew from the market. There are also large numbers of IFAs (Independent Financial Advisors) who due to the cost of funding the training and the amount of studying are withdrawing from the industry, again reducing accessability to advice for the lower to middle income customers.

This is creating a very serious problem. With all of us living for longer and the cost of living, particularly in the later years rising, with the reduction in employer provided pensions benefits, there is an increasing need for individuals to save for the longer term, to invest in individual pensions and to provide for their loved ones through life assurance. With the options complex and becoming more complex there is an increasing need for advice, however what RDR has done is reduce access to that advice.

With the availability of advice for investment products being reduced the current UK Government is now putting in plans to reduce the accessibility of advice for mortgage products. Similar to RDR the Mortgage Market Review (MMR) set out to protect customers but is fact making it far more difficult to get advice. For instance should a customer phone up a bank such as First Direct and ask about mortgage products the bank employee will not be able to talk about the difference between a fixed-rate mortgage versus a variable rate mortgage since that would be seen as advice and without completing a fact find that will no longer be possible. This could once again, see mortgage advisors and brokers withdrawing from the market.

Not all banks are withdrawing from either the investment market or the mortgage market. There are those who are considering the commercials and rather than quitting are looking at innovative ways of improving productivity of their advisors. Both Bank of America and Bank of Moscow have pilots out using videoconferencing to bring the advisors virtually to the branches. With the increasing acceptance of videoconferencing through the likes of Apple’s Facetime or Skype, the availability on devices such as the iPad, then those organisations with the imagination may still be able to find ways to commercially provide advice to the mass market.

Of course videoconferencing does not overcome the requirement to have fully trained and qualified advisors, since selling through videcconferencing is no less regulated than through branches or contact centres. What it does mean though is that through the higher productivity brought about by the advisors being able to support multiple branches less advisors are needed and the cost of providing advice is therefore reduced.

What RDR shows, once again, is that when governments with all good intentions create regulation for the Financial Services sector the effect on customers is often the opposite of what they intended. Governments should spend more time considering and discussing regulation with customers and the industry (and not instantly assume that whatever the banks say is wrong and out of self-interest) and resist the temptation to rush out populist regulation.

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