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Friday, 15 April 2016

There's No Single Market For Consumer Finance: What Next?

Perhaps it's not what the European Commission intended, but its green paper on retail financial services is a great explanation of why there is so little cross-border activity in consumer finance: 3% for payment cards, current accounts and mortgages; 5% for loans (less than 1% between Eurozone countries!) and only 3% of gross insurance premiums. For a very long list of reasons, it's just not practicable for most retail financial services providers to operate across EU borders, as the EC has known since at least 2007. Could it be time, therefore, to scale back EU requirements for firms that only focus on their national market, so consumers have a clear choice between national and genuinely cross-border suppliers and products?

The Commission concedes that its vast, confetti-like attempt to harmonise EU financial regulation  has proved futile in catalysing a single retail finance market, yet it continues to ask what more can be done.

One issue in particular that the Commission is huffing and puffing about is 'geo-blocking', the use of technology to identify and block or re-direct consumers based in certain countries.

But the Commission's own findings are that few players have the resources to focus on cross-border markets. Suppliers who do target multiple countries typically use separate local operating entities to deal with all the problems listed in the green paper, so they don't even properly qualify as 'cross'-border. At any rate, how can you force a Spanish motor insurer to sell policies to Germans if it simply can't afford to administer claims in Germany? How would that be in the policyholders' interests? Even assuming the focus solely on Spanish customers is the supplier's own choice, rather than due to some legal restriction, wouldn't requiring the firm to deal with Germans or Swedish consumers put it at risk of going bust, leaving the whole market to a few big players who can afford to serve customers everywhere?

In its response to the green paper, the UK's Financial Conduct Authority quite rightly urges caution on the economic impact of more (futile) regulation, as well as careful analysis of consumer needs and behaviour before churning it out. The FCA points out that existing regulation must be allowed to 'bed-in' before assessing its real impact; and the Commission needs to consider that EU consumers are not some amorphous clump of flesh waiting eagerly for Greek insurance policies homogeneous, but diverse in their needs and behaviours - so a 'one-size-fits-all' approach won't be universally acceptable and risks crushing local financial services that are working well.

The FCA hints at the idea of a range of EU-approved products that might be provided by any EEA firm to any EEA consumer in a standard way, though this still begs the question whether the providers are able to manage this operationally. 

I guess it's possible that those able to target cross-border markets would benefit from some kind of voluntary EU-cross-border safe harbour scheme that enables them to adopt the same approach to marketing, contracts, customer service, complaints handling and enforcement and so on throughout their target market(s). It could even be very a attractive product in some national markets that are currently under-served or where consumers are being fleeced.

But that's more or less what the current regime allows, yet few firms are bothering to do it: the whole point is that we know it is futile to impose a cross-border scheme on firms and consumers who just want to focus on their own national, regional or local market.

Which begs the question: rather than add more regulation, why not allow member states to scale back EU requirements for firms that wish to remain nationally focused? This would allow further differentiation between national and cross-border suppliers and products, presenting consumers with a clearer choice to make.


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