Separating the Wheatley from the chaff

Martin Wheatley is to head the FCA.

On Wednesday Martin Wheatley, who will head up the FCA (the new incarnation of the FSA), made a stirring speech championing the consumer.  At last there appears to be someone with the guts to challenge the "weeds" that have propagated at the FSA.  The biblical reference "to separate the wheat from the chaff" from Matthew 3, means to separate things of value from things of no value; and the serial failings of the FSA has proven they have no value when it comes to consumer protection.

But let us not rejoice just yet, for while Mr Wheatley's speech is excellent news, the FCA will be judged on its actions, not just its words. We have now seen years of procrastination and dithering from various regulators, including the IMA and the FSA and we urgently need statutory guidelines to ensure full transparency that will lead to vastly improved investor and saver outcomes.

Whilst his comments suggest he intends to show strong leadership and tackle hidden charges and fund fund fees at the FCA, Martin Wheatley is not going to have an easy job and is going to be heavily interventionist if he is to succeed. The industry is only just beginning to step reluctantly in the direction of giving greater transparency.  There are very mixed messages still circulating in the industry, causing yet more confusion for savers and investors. The most recent example being the IMA’s Annual Asset Management Report, issued this month, which stated that “investment clients are paying fund fees of a fraction over 0.3 per cent across the board”. This completely ludicrous claim puts efforts to regain consumer trust in financial products and the financial services sector back several years.

In my view, strong, clear leadership, a single industry standard on transparency of fees and charging, and a standardised method of reporting all costs and fees via one single total cost of investing number are essential steps to ensure consumers know the full price they will pay for investment products prior to purchase. 

However we also need to address other anti-consumer practices (which we have been highlighted by the True and Fair Campaign) including the failure to give full disclosure to consumers on where their money is invested; closet index tracking by active funds; fund mislabelling and mis-classification and conflicts of interest in stock lending.

There is much to do to improve the shockingly low standards of investor and saver protection in the UK.  Change is long overdue and must come soon, otherwise we risk further alienating savers and investors and damaging the financial services industry, and the UK economy. Martin Wheatley’s comments are extremely welcomed but we urge stakeholders to keep a watchful eye out for early action from the FCA to honour this pledge to give genuine transparency.

Gina Miller is the founding partner of SCM Private LLP and spearhead of the True and Fair Campaign. www.trueandfaircampaign.com

 

Martin Wheatley. Photograph: Getty Images

Gina Miller is the founding partner of SCM Direct and spearhead of the True and Fair Campaign. www.trueandfaircampaign.com

Getty Images.
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How worried are Labour MPs about losing their seats?

Despite their party's abysmal poll ratings, MPs find cause for optimism on the campaign trail. 

Labour enters the general election with subterranean expectations. A "good result", MPs say, would be to retain 180-200 of their 229 MPs. Some fear a worse result than 1935, when the party won just 154 seats. Rather than falling, the Conservatives' poll lead has risen as the prospect of electing a government concentrates minds (last night's YouGov survey, showing the Tories a mere 16 points ahead, was an exception).

Though Conservative strategists insist they could lose the election, in an attempt to incentivise turnout, their decision to target Labour MPs with majorities as high as 8,000 shows the scale of their ambitions (a Commons majority of circa 150 seats). But as well as despair, there is hope to be found in the opposition's ranks.

Though MPs lament that Jeremy Corbyn is an unavoidable drag on their support, they cite four reasons for optimism. The first is their local reputation, which allows them to differentiate themselves from the national party (some quip that the only leaflets on which Corbyn will feature are Tory ones). The second is that since few voters believe the Labour leader can become Prime Minister, there is less risk attached to voting for the party (a point some MPs make explicit) "The problem with Ed Miliband and the SNP in 2015 was that it was a plausible scenario," a shadow minister told me. "It was quite legitimate for voters to ask us the question we didn't want to answer: 'what would you do in a hung parliament?' If voters have a complaint it's usually about Jeremy but it's not the case that he looks like he can become prime minister."

The third reason is the spectre of an omnipotent Tory government. MPs appeal to voters not to give Theresa May a "free hand" and to ensure there is some semblance of an opposition remains. Finally, MPs believe there is an enduring tribal loyalty to Labour, which will assert itself as polling day approaches. Some liken such voters to sports fans, who support their team through thick and thin, regardless of whether they like the manager. Outgoing MP Michael Dugher (who I interviewed this week) was told by an elderly woman: "Don't worry, love, I will still vote Labour. I vote for you even when you're rubbish."

Ben Bradshaw, the long-serving MP for Exter, who has a majority of 7,183, told me: "We're not anything for granted of course. On the current national polling, the Tories would take Exeter. But having covered five polling districts, although the leadership is undoubtedly a big issue on the doorstep, most people say they'll still vote for me as their local MP and we're not detecting any significant shift away from 2015. Which is slightly puzzling given the chasm in the opinion polls." Bradshaw also promotes himself as "the only non-Tory MP in the south-west outside Bristol": a leaflet shows a blue-splattered map with a lone red dot. The Labour MP warns voters not to be left in a "one-party state". 

As in 2010, Labour may yet retain more seats than its vote share suggests (aided by unchanged boundaries). But the fate of the Liberal Democrats in 2015 - when the party was reduced from 56 MPs to eight - shows that local reputations are worth less than many suppose. Theresa May has succeeded in framing herself as a figure above party interests, who needs a "strong hand" in the Brexit negotiations. At the very moment when a vigorous opposition is needed most, Labour has rarely been weaker. And when the public turn resolutely against a party, even the best men and women are not spared.  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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