Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Diversify More

Great to see a broader debate about where social lending sits in the banking and investment world (most recently summarised on Bankwatch).

It would indeed be very helpful if people could deduct their social lending fees/losses against their income tax, and lend money to each other via their ISAs. Some day common sense will prevail.

Of course, you can already lend money to people (who aren't related to you) via your Self-invested Personal Pension plan with the trustee's consent. I explored that in some detail in 2007 while General Counsel of Zopa, and even obtained FSA authorisation for Zopa to introduce people to a dedicated 'mini-SIPP' that was to be issued by a SIPP-provider exclusively for lending money via Zopa.

On that basis, there's no reason you shouldn't be able to lend money to others through a 'DIY' ISA or stocks/shares component of your normal ISA, especially where the administration and audit-trail is outsourced to a social lending platform such as Zopa (currently the only one in the UK).

But let's go further.

The artificial distinctions between the various investment 'channels' merely confuse the issue of how diversified you really are, and create a needless multiplicity of intermediaries who all have to take their cut from our money. We know what it means not to put “all your eggs in one basket”, but struggle to see or understand the “eggs” and the “basket”, and unwittingly hemorrhage returns in fees and commission.

Consider that you can invest your money in exactly the same managed investment funds directly, as well as via a tax-free 'wrapper' such as an ISA, pension and/or child trust fund. And if your corporate pension is managed as opaquely as mine are, then you have no idea whether your corporate pension trustee has your pension money invested in the same funds you hold via other 'channels'.

As I've pointed out previously, figuring out whether your 10, 20 or 30 different funds actually represent a diversified portfolio, or ultimately all track each other, is no easy task. The existing product providers and IFAs can't really be expected to take a huge interest in your mish-mash of pension and non-pension, taxable and non-taxable investments (and let's not forget the mortgage albatross or any other liabilities you thought were assets). They tend to earn fees simply based on how much of your money they have 'under management'. So if your investments are scattered to the four winds, the revenue they earn from you is disproportionate to the work required to pull all the information together. In fact, it may not even be cost effective to pay the fees for an adviser to do a proper job.

While the FSA has reviewed retail distribution to try to resolve this issue, that review ignored any asset offered by a provider that the FSA doesn't regulate, including all consumer credit (and hence social lending via Zopa). The limited nature of the FSA's remit and resources prevent it from seeing the financial world holistically. Consider, too, that the FSA's own "MoneyMadeClear" website has different tabs for pensions, as opposed to savings and investments - when in both cases you're simply 'investing', and your money could end up in the same place through either channel.

As I've said before, we need a one-stop, low-cost service that allows you to track all your savings and investments, whether in or outside pensions, taxable or non-taxable; understand whether they're up, down or sideways; benchmark them against competing options; assess whether you are really diversified; avoid the pitfalls of transfer fees, dealing charges and other potentially hidden expenses; and cost-effectively trade your way out of any problems.

Remember, you are on your own: pay less, diversify more and be contrarian.
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