Tuesday, 13 November 2007

How we view and use money

He suggests that the proposed three tiers of advice, coupled with EU-driven changes to the test of what is appropriate, will increase the cost of products, leaving the “mass market” with only the Sunday newspapers to help them invest. Which means they won’t.

To be fair, the FSA says it has an open mind on the proposals, and the initial consultation doesn’t end until December.

But the most troubling aspect of the review is that it proceeds from the perspective of whom and what the FSA regulates, and not in terms of how consumers want to use money. As consumers, we don’t think about who is regulating the different ways we use our money. We just expect it to be able to use it as we wish, without complex, artificial or costly barriers being placed in our way.

There is already very little focus on providing more usable, transparent and cost-effective financial services from the consumer's standpoint, because that would seriously impact bank profitability that is already under pressure. For example, according to Uswitch, figures for RBS Group, as at March 2007, showed that retail profits rose 1.5% (about 25% of group profits) against a rise of 14% in retail write-offs (69% of all write-offs).

Witness also how UK banks have actually gone to court to defend fees that consumers and regulators have long complained are too high; and their grudging agreement to speed up electronic payments, only in the face of competition inquiries.

Of course, over the past decade consumers have seized upon usable Internet technology to disrupt traditional supplier-determined experiences in travel, music, retailing, betting/bookmaking, games, telephony, TV and so on. Social lending and micro-finance are established elements of this rapidly evolving trend, which will surely reshape banking, insurance, asset management and pensions in due course - provided that regulation does not get in the way.

For a further catalyst, look no further than the current credit crisis. The inability of banks to understand who owes what to whom so that they can confidently lend to each other again is illustrative of how badly transparency is lacking. The savers' run on Northern Rock shows that consumer feel it too, and are prepared to act when they consider that someone is less than transparent about what is being done with their money.

So it is now more critical than ever that the FSA views the financial services market not from the perspective of the institutions and products that it regulates, but in terms of how consumers want to use their money transparently and cost-effectively, and what is needed to help them do just that.

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