How has Consumer Duty impacted wealth management so far?

How has Consumer Duty impacted wealth management so far?

Consumer Duty has now been live in the UK for several months. Wealth management firms spent many resources preparing themselves to be ready for the regulatory change, but how has the market reacted to it so far?

The UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) enforced Consumer Duty from July 2023, with the regulation set to bolster consumer protection within financial services. The aim is to ensure consumers get the support they need, when they need it, are provided with clear communications and have access to products that meet their needs. This means consumers should expect helpful and accessible customer support, timely and clear information and access to products that are relevant and provide fair value. Additionally, those in vulnerable situations should receive more support.

FinTech Global spoke to a number of players in the wealth management space to get their thoughts on how the first few months of the regulation has fared.

Daniel Meyer, financial services lawyer at national law firm Freeths, noted that when the FCA reviewed the implementation of Consumer Duty by firms, it found some firms were doing well and others struggled. This is something Meyer has seen first-hand with clients in financial services. As a result, he believes there are improvements that can be made, chief among these is removing assumptions from the implementation of Consumer Duty and moving towards an evidence-based implementation.

He said, “In several sectors, firms could also be collaborating more closely with other firms in the distribution chain on Consumer Duty implementation, sharing the burden of implementation by sharing data to assist each other. The FCA set a very challenging timescale for firms to implement the Consumer Duty by the deadline and a lot of firms worked very hard to embed changes during this period. However, implementation should not have stopped on 31 July 2023. The Consumer Duty is all about continuous improvement, so firms will need to continuously review and update their Consumer Duty implementation.”

Some firms having a tougher time to reach compliance could have been foreseen. Not every business is the same and some have needed to do much more work to prepare for the regulation. As such, Lee Bowyer, Chief Compliance Officer and MLRO of mobile investing app Sidekick, believes the implementation of Consumer Duty has gone as expected. He said, “Consumer Duty is a key pillar of culture which will always be evolving in any firm so the work required to embed Consumer Duty will continue for many years to come. Newer entrants (such as us at Sidekick) had an advantage here as we built our firm in a post-Consumer Duty world, it is much harder to adapt as an incumbent.”

Initial benefits of Consumer Duty

The driving force behind Consumer Duty was for greater consumer protection, and this could help make wealth management become a better force for financial inclusion.

Lucy Whitehead, Chief Client Officer at wealth management firm Kingswood Group, sees Consumer Duty bolstering the clarity within the wealth sector. She said, “The industry can often be stereotyped as difficult to grasp, most often stemming from individuals’ fear of not understanding products and services.  The new rules underscore the importance of firms actively testing clients’ understanding and avoiding the use of jargon, which is a great step forward.”

In a similar vein, Radomir Mastalerz, co-founder and CEO of easy-to-use and affordable wealth management platform WealthArc, believes the regulation is part of a journey towards greater transparency within wealth management. He said, “Consumer Duty is an important step to increase transparency and consumer protection in financial industry. I believe the drive to full transparency will continue.”

One of the other positive impacts Consumer Duty is having is a shift in culture within wealth management firms, according to Mohammad Uz-Zaman, Director and Founder of wealth management firm ADL Estate Planning. He noted, “Good client outcomes are paramount, and it is forcing firms to have a conversation about the culture at their firms and their processes to explore how they can adapt. The thing is anecdotally I expect most firms are already doing this in principle which merely requires tweaking various systems and processes.”

Uz-Zaman used his own firm as an example, highlighting that the team has examined how it can justify one protection product over another beyond simply looking at the cost of the premium. ADL Estate Planning has also invested in systems to compare the quality of the underlying insurance contract, as well as reflected on its investment strategies to ensure they are appropriately tailored for different types of clients.

As for Freeths’ Meyer, he believes the biggest benefit of Consumer Duty is an increase in trust and loyalty towards wealth management firms. For example, by ensuring a wealth manager is providing services suited to the customer, it can build a stronger loyalty with that customer, reduce complaints, and ultimately, reduce costs and improve commercial outcomes, he explained.

Incoming fines?

When a new regulation comes into force, there is always question of how tough regulators will be out of the gate for firms that are not compliant. Will the regulators look to dish out penalties soon after launch, or will there be a grace period for firms?

Freeths’ Meyer believes that the FCA could come out quickly and dish out fines to some of the most serious cases to make an example out of them and ensure others meet the rules.

He said, “This is something many of us have been expecting. The Consumer Duty is the FCA’s flagship policy and so we are expecting the FCA to make an example of one or multiple firms early in the life of the Consumer Duty to make sure firms take it seriously. This is also in the context of the FCA recently consulting on its controversial proposed new approach to publicising enforcement investigations, which will highlight potential non-compliance earlier in the enforcement process (even if eventually non-compliance is not identified).”

To avoid getting the attention of the FCA, Meyer urges firms to take the Consumer Duty annual board report process seriously. The first of these reports need to be completed by 31st July 2024 and should outline how the firm has ensured customers achieve good outcomes.

Abdulali Jiwaji, partner specialist financial disputes lawyer at law firm Signature Litigation, believes the FCA’s approach to Consumer Duty has been quite measured as firms comply. However, this doesn’t rule out the potential for non-compliance penalties this year.

Jiwaji said, “There is a real likelihood of enforcement actions and fines within 2024, as the FCA will be keen to set examples of good and bad practice.  It’s clear that the FCA is looking for engagement at board level – senior managers are in the spotlight on implementation progress, and they need to be able to give a good account of their actions. While there has been a huge effort in the industry to meet the targets, inevitably there will be some that just can’t make it. And if this can’t be explained at board level, individuals will be exposed.”

Not everyone was as confident about the potential for fines in 2024. Instead, Sidekick’s Bowyer thinks the regulator might use the threat of reputational damage as a deterrent for firms missing the requirement guidelines. He said, “The FCA doesn’t necessarily want to use enforcement as its only lever as there’s a time/cost/effort consideration. Take a look at the typical period from investigation through to fine and you can see that the process takes a lot of time which can dilute the effectiveness. What’s more interesting is the recent change to the FCA’s enforcement process which allows it to now publicly state when a firm is under investigation – reputationally, this will be a clear deterrent.”

Alternatively, ADL Estate Planning’s Uz-Zaman doesn’t think the FCA will only issue fines if a client has suffered a loss. “The FCA doesn’t have the manpower to police every single regulated firm. However, we’re seeing a plethora of online advertisements targeting consumer who have received financial advice to set up a financial product and yet being charged an ongoing advice fee without providing that ongoing advice.

“That’s usually because the business model was flawed from day 1, where it was less about delivering good outcomes for a retail client but to build AUM that could be sold to another adviser who’d fund the purchase using an internal interest-bearing loan only available to members of the group. With such business models, it’s unclear whether the retail client, is the client or merely the product to be sold at profit later.

“Here’s a tip, if you feel like you’ve got a complaint, make a formal complaint directly to the regulated firm, and if the complaint is rejected you’ll have recourse to the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) for free. Avoid Claim Management Companies (CMCs) who’d take c30% of any compensation without adding any tangible value.”

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