Revealed: How investment funds are ripping us off in retirement

While new transparency rules are welcome, sky-high pay in city investment firms is costing us all dearly. Until inequality is tackled, we'll continue to lose out.

While it hasn’t attracted much attention compared to racier subjects like Brexit or the Royal Wedding, one announcement last week deserves close attention. 

Financial services regulator the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has just published new rules for the governance of fund managers.

It’s a pretty technical topic. But it matters. Fund managers invest trillion of pounds worth of money on behalf of clients, including pension funds and savers. If they’re not properly held to account, there are serious consequences. And they are not currently being held to account.

The FCA’s ‘market study’ of the fund management industry last year found that fund managers were overcharging clients for hundreds of billions of pounds worth of investments. The industry enjoys huge and sustained profits, but performance is frequently mediocre.

This isn’t the result of some kind of illicit Bernie Madoff-style scam – it’s merely powerful fund managers knowingly charging excessive fees – perfectly legally – to clients who lack the expertise, resources or advice to properly understand whether or not they’re getting value for money.

The net result is that savers endure much lower incomes in retirement – the FCA provide a scenario whereby the value of a savings pot is reduced by 44% as a result of fund manager fees and charges – while the fund manager’s staff laugh all the way to the Ferrari dealership.

The FCA have proposed a tougher new governance regime as a means of addressing this lack of accountability.

Fund managers will be required to appoint independent directors to their board (comprising at least 25% of the board membership), and conduct and report an annual assessment of how they deliver ‘value for money’ for clients in relations to the costs they incur.

These are worthwhile measures, but there is an obvious oversight: the huge pay packets in the fund management industry.

Research suggests that senior staff at fund managers are paid an average of over £200,000. This is perhaps the biggest cost ultimately accruing to the industry’s clients.

The Chair of the FCA’s own ‘Institutional Disclosure Working Group’ examining fund managers’ costs told a conference that his interest in the topic arose after moving from the police service to a fund manager.

He found that he was paid more for a junior administrative role at a fund than he was as a policeman with major responsibilities for public order and safety across a population of thousands of people.

It’s a discrepancy that most people would find totally astounding. And fund managers only get away with it because they are allowed to hide it.  Regulators should demand much more detailed disclosures about fund manager pay and incentives as part of the new value for money requirements.

And the pension funds that hand over their members’ hard-earned pension savings to fund managers should also be asking tougher questions about how much will end up in some city hotshot’s pocket.

These kind of measures might not knock Brexit or Meghan Markle off the front pages, but they might mean more money for workers in retirement and a reduction in the yawning gap between the richest 1 per cent and everybody else.

Luke Hildyard is Director of the High Pay Centre.

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