Sunday, 20 December 2009

Simple, Low Cost Financial Services

It's been helter skelter this month, so no time to post. But a recent financial regulatory conversation has prompted me to draw together the threads from a number of earlier posts this year.

The current "problems" in the financial services markets - excessive fees and bonuses, lack of transparency, poorly understood products, the credit and pension crises - are, ironically, the result of existing regulation. To solve them, the clear objective of the regulatory regime should be to deliver simple, low cost financial products that are accessible to us all.

Excessive banking/investment fees, and related compensation ("fat banking"), are the result of funnelling investment opportunities and funding into a zone in which relatively few firms are permitted to operate. Of course, even within that small group of firms, there are a dominant few who get to charge even more for their services. Products become increasingly complex, less transparent and less well understood as these few firms struggle to get an edge on the 'competition' and quote 'stellar' returns, until risk becomes highly concentrated and there is actually very little effective competition at all. In this scenario, fee caps and taxes will be ineffective - the huge flows of investment funds and opportunities will always incentivise ways of getting round the curbs, or the practicalities of getting anything funded at all will sweep them away. As a result, funding costs will continue to rise, as will the incomes of the staff working for the annointed few.

One way to challenge this trend is to open up the investment 'funnel', and make the financial markets accessible to us all. That in turn means vastly simplifying the process for the average individual to invest/save in a fully diversified way. To meet that challenge, successful investment firms would have to race each other to demystify and simplify the funding/investment experience. Today, even 'thin' intermediaries, like discount brokers, still leave too much work to be done for the average person to engage with the financial markets. We speak of 'fund supermarkets', but these are Bond Street boutiques, not Sainsbury's.

Diversification is critical yet remains a black art. The list of asset classes is long, yet most assets cannot be invested in by the average person, even by putting money in the hands of managers who can invest more widely. All sorts of rules, policies and other restrictions limit the extent to which individuals as well as pension and other fund managers can diversify, and this must necessarily affect (and correlate) their performance. So our regulatory regime actually prohibits diversification, and creates a scenario where too many investors effectively adopt the same or very similar investment strategies. Instead, we need to make it very cheap and easy for each of us to 'buy' non-correlated assets from all asset classes so we don't blow our long-term savings on the same bunch of poorly-informed investments.

Individuals have spent the past decade using the internet to gain control of many consumer experiences, from holidays to entertainment. Low cost 'facilitators' have allowed us to unbundle flights and hotels, music tracks and other one-size-fits-all products to create our own personalised, lower cost alternatives. Similarly, we should be striving to produce a financial services market in which any person can add individual stocks and shares to a shopping cart that tells them the extent to which the selection is high risk and poorly diversified, either on its own or when compared to the buyer's existing portfolio.

Effectively pegging firms' reputations to their ability to estimate risk in this way, rather than generate 'stellar' short term returns on complex products, would in turn act as a further constraint on complexity and poor risk management.

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