#ItzOnWealthTech Ep. 50: Why Advisors Should Love Regulation with Ian McKenna

"Regulation is a catalyst for innovation, not a restriction on it. In order to deliver on tighter regulations, invariably you need more technology. Regulation drives the demand for technology and and moves the industry forward in a very positive way."

— Ian McKenna, Founder & Director, Financial Technology Research Centre (FTRC)

After 15 years working for insurers and financial advice businesses, fintech columnist and financial services futurist Ian McKenna founded FTRC, a specialist consultancy which focuses on the operational key issues around the distribution medium and long terms savings vehicles, other packaged financial products and the supporting technology. FTRC produces a range of information services including AdviserSoftware.com and ProtectectionGuru.co.uk. Ian is ranked one of the top 100 influencers in wealth management globally, and has been researching fintech since before the term was coined.

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This episode of Wealth Management Today is brought to you by Ezra Group Consulting. If your firm is evaluating new technology or looking to improve your current wealth platform, you need to contact Ezra Group. Don’t spend another day using technology that doesn’t offer an elegant user experience. Your advisors and clients deserve better and you can deliver it to them with the help of Ezra Group.

Companies & People Mentioned

Topics Covered in this Episode

  • Adapting to the New Normal [03:15]
  • Why Advisors Should Love Regulations [07:45]
  • Synergy Between Regulation & Technology [19:15]
  • Robo Advisors in the News [29:00]
  • The Composition of Advice [35:00]
  • Traction of Digital Mobile Experiences [44:00]

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Complete Episode Transcript

Craig: Hey there, the world of wealthtech. It's always a pleasure to spend time with you. This is the economic reopening version of the WMToday podcast. I'm your host, Craig Iskowitz, and I run a consulting company called Ezra Group. We help wealth management firms make better technology and business decisions through our research and advice. And on this podcast I speak with some of the smartest people in the industry who are on the leading edge of technology and innovation. And before we go on, I want to remind you to subscribe to this podcast and leave us a five star review on iTunes as well as share it on your social media networks. I would greatly appreciate it.

Craig: And my guest on this episode of the Wealth Management Today podcast is Mr. Ian McKenna, the founder of the Financial Technology Research Centre. Hey Ian. You're laughing already, I haven't said anything. Oh, you're laughing because I said "centre".

Ian: Well you know, it's the debate between English-English and American-English. The nation separated by a common language.

Craig: For those of you listening at home, the research center is spelled C, E, N, T, R, E, which is, as Ian says, the proper way to spell it, as opposed to the American way.

Ian: We've been spelling it that way for several hundred years.

Adapting to the New Normal

Craig: Good enough. So thanks for being here, we have a whole bunch of stuff to talk about. Before we start, how are things going in London with the pandemic?

Ian: I think we're constantly adapting to the new normal, but the big view seems to be at an industry level over here. I think it's very clear that businesses are taking this far more seriously and being frankly, far more cautious and strategic at the same time than the government is. I mean the government here, frankly, is a mess, they don't know what they're doing. That's quite clear. They test everything by leaking it through the press, you can see that. They'll leak one thing, the one one day, see what reaction they get, leak another thing another day. And it really is just like, let's just ignore the government and do the sensible thing. It's quite clear talking to some of the manufacturing community over here, the insurers, the platforms. I think they're taking a far more forward and conservative view in terms of, travel is out for 2020. And who knows, it may be for 2021, but we're all learning new ways of working. It's great. Things that particularly, in terms of embracing change and new technologies, things that people have been resisting for decades, they're suddenly finding they can deploy in days. The cynic in me would then say, yeah, but it's all the things that brings money into the manufacturers and we need these, what we need to see is change all the way across the business process. You know, not just those things that bring in money, but those things that cause real change.

Ian: One thing I do see that is very refreshing is the number of advisors has probably moved over the last three or four years quite significantly. I remember writing something for one of the papers I write for in the UK in the financial services industry, probably about three years ago, strongly advocating virtual meetings. And the response that I got from the majority of readers was not positive. Someone wrote a similar piece, around the turn of the year and got a far more positive reaction. I think by the turn of the year we'd got to about 50/50. But what I've found really great is seeing messages on social media, trade media platforms, where you're getting advisors that were saying, I never thought this would work for me, and actually it's great. The clients can engage with it, I'm making far more effective use of time. Again, if you get away from what the government is talking about, cause they'll say whatever they think is going to put them higher in the polls. They've got no interest in getting a real solution to anything. But people are having very good and positive discussions about improvements to both efficiency and quality of life, time spent with families. I think we need to see how this pans out for younger people, those in their twenties, probably at the moment. It doesn't work out so well if they're not as established in their lives. And we've got to be very careful that it doesn't lead to another form of exclusion. But generally hey, you just got to get home with it and make the best out of it. That's what people are doing. And I think the one other thing is make sure that these changes and smarter ways of working aren't just temporary but permanent.

Why Advisors Should Love Regulations

Craig: So one of the things we were talking about in prepping for this call, was something you said which I thought was really interesting about advisors should love regulations. Can you tell us why you think advisors should love regulations?

Ian: Because it's really good for their business and it's a differentiator. Bit of background, in the UK we've had financial regulation since 1986, and we've been through separate rounds of it. And I'm going to be the first to say we haven't always got it right. But in the long term, we got to a situation today where there's more demand for financial advice than there's ever been. There's definitely an excessive demand over supply. Advisors are earning more money than they've ever done. Their balance sheets are stronger than they've ever been, and those messages actually come from the regulator in the UK, the Financial Conduct Authority, they're not happy with everything that they've done. Regulators never are. This is one of the things you have to learn I think is, if you set an organization up with the explicit mission of looking at how everything is done in the industry, don't be surprised when they start unearthing and turning up stones and finding things underneath, that you might rather not have seen.

Ian: But in the long run overall, in direct contradiction to what everybody expected, if we talk in the more recent past. The retail distribution review, which the process started around 2005, 2006, finally came into enactment at the beginning of 2013. And if you'd spoken to most advisors over that 2005-2013 period, the world was going to end. It was going to be really bad for them. It was the worst possible thing that could have happened. You speak to them now, and the reality is their businesses are stronger than they have ever been. There's more demand for financial advice than there's ever been. Their services are more clearly differentiated.

Ian: But I would say, and certainly people I speak to in the US suggest to me that Reg BI is a very simple level of financial regulation. From the things that have been described to me actually appears to be significantly less than what was brought in by the 1986 act over here. So, I mean it's worth people studying, what have we got now, 35 years of regulatory experience in the UK. We've done a lot of things wrong. A lot of things have not worked out, but a lot of things have worked out very well indeed. And it certainly made financial advisors stronger. You do need to be obviously on your guard in terms of how these things are put together, and the consequences. Some of the original plans got stopped in the end, but if if I go back to the early '80s, at one point, the deputy chair of the group that was drafting all the requirements happened to be the CEO of a very large insurance company with the distribution force.

Ian: And shall we say that the approach that they put forward at that time, probably wouldn't have come out with the best outcome for independent advisors. But that wasn't what succeeded, we ended up in a very good place. If we look at what's happened since retail distribution review was put in place, and that by the way was the process that completely and utterly outlawed for all forms of distribution. So not just our equivalent of RIAs, but our equivalent of broker dealers as well. No commission on anything, no commission to anyone for any investment products anywhere.

Craig: When did that come out? The retail distribution review?

Ian: It took effect on the 1st of January, 2013 and as I say in the run up to it, advisors thought it was going to be the worst thing ever. It's turned out to be the best thing ever for them. There are a couple of things that have come along the way that have helped as well. Changes to regulations, the so called pension freedoms, that's helped. And also, MiFID, MiFID II. I think the really interesting thing about MiFID II, it made all investment charges transparent.

Craig: Wait can you explain for us US-based folk can explain what MiFID II is?

Ian: MiFID II, it's a piece of European Union legislation actually, that introduced very strict rules for the disclosure of charges. So basically it's an asset manager's worst nightmare. All the stuff that they had been saying for decades that it was completely impossible to actually quantify what these charges were, all of a sudden he wrote the rules that basically said, well, if you don't give this information, you're liable for a fine of up to 4% of global turnover and suddenly all sorts of things that were impossible for asset managers to disclose, suddenly became totally transparent. And the disclosure is not just on asset managers. It's on basically anyone that's taking a percentage out of a client's investment. So that's the asset manager, that's whatever package product it's coming along with, be it a TAMP, I suppose in your terms, or an annuity contract or whatever. The advisors as well have to disclose their own charges, both in percentage if they're applying them, but more importantly, pounds and pence terms to the customer. So the customer now gets an annual statement and they do x-ante and x-posts. So before you engage in a transaction, you have to lay out what the impact of the charges will be. But you actually have to go back every year and say, okay, your fund has now grown to X and out of that, the advisor's taking A, the investment manager's taking B, the rapid provider's taking C in pounds and pence terms. So it's really, really clear. Let's compare what can't happen. You can't, I must admit, I am amused when I see various products being launched by large financial institutions in the US that are supposedly free. You know, there's no charges and then one looks at those organizations and said, and when did they last work for nothing? They're not really free. It just, if someone's saying it's free, it just means you've got to look harder for where they're taking your money. Global financial institutions don't become so like giving free services.

Craig: Yeah. I was having this conversation last week with somebody about custody, and I was talking to one of the heads of custodians and we're saying, when is that going to change where custody is no longer free? And he felt that it would never change because the model's been that way since the beginning. It's always been free and no one's going to pay for it. But I think someone will start cause they're going to realize it's not free and your costs are being hidden and being born by the client and the clients don't really know what they're paying.

Ian: Exactly. An asset manager could choose to show the custody charge rolled up into their charges. But essentially what it means is you're getting very clear disclosure to the customer. Now there are some bits of MiFID II that are challenging. For example, there's a thing called the 10% rule. And that means that any time that a client's fund drops by more than 10%, the advisor has to do an explicit notification out to the client.

Craig: Yeah, that's crazy that would be a problem here.

Ian: It's not easy over here and it's caused a huge amount of stress in the last couple of months. There were many organizations where they were having to send clients three 10% lesses in as many days. And I think that's something that people will look back afterwards and there's a lot of feedback and how do we do it better? But by the same token, the client's warmed up to what's happening. I think one of the things really that all of this is has hugely shown, and again it's where advisors really demonstrate their value is talking to the customers, engaging with them. Isn't one of the most important parts of advice coaching clients not to make bad knee-jerk decisions?

Craig: Sure. Exactly.

Synergy Between Regulation & Technology

Ian: It's been really interesting talking to an awful lot of advisors in the last few months, it was like absolutely huge numbers of clients looking at the current situation and saying, yeah, that's a buying opportunity, people taking it that way. But coming back to this wider point, I think as you begin going down this sort of regulatory road in the US, and I do absolutely believe it's a good thing. It's a good thing for advisors, also for technology companies. There's a huge synergy between regulation and technology because basically you can't really have one without the other. Then, in order to actually deliver on tighter regulation, invariably you need more technology. And the regulation actually drives the demand for the technology and for the services and moves people forward in a very positive way. I think it's interesting when you look at the global regulatory effect, it's certainly been something. The level of regulation we have in the UK has definitely been a huge benefit to our FinTech industry. The FCA decided very early on that they were going to embrace FinTech.

Ian: To be fair, it's not just the FCA. I was doing some work with her Majesty's treasury a couple of years ago, and coming out of meetings at the treasury, just walking past, there was one particular poster that really resonated with me. It was up on the wall. It was "The 10 Most Important Things to HM. Treasury", and supporting FinTech was number five. You know, you're talking the people that are deciding where the country's money is to make FinTech one of their top most important things. And it wasn't even at the bottom of the list. It was halfway up and they've really set a regulatory environment to support that. So much so that, it's interesting because I think the lack of regulation that you have in the US.

Craig: Well we have plenty of regulations here, I wouldn't say lack of regulation.

Ian: Okay. But the regulation perhaps being applied in different ways, and particularly regulation here is hugely focused on consumer protection. I know all the rules are around, what's causing the best outcome for the customer and can you always demonstrate that best outcome for the customer? And if you can't, it can be referred to the ombudsman and they can award against you really quite substantially. And I think this is something I would say as your regulatory landscape is evolving, one of the things that you can a lot of people can learn from the UK is because we were relatively earlier into these far more detailed layers of regulation, we've made a lot of mistakes, right? And traveling around the world, speaking to regulators in other countries frequently, they'll look at what we've done and they're like, yeah, okay, the Brits probably overcooked that a bit we'll go for 80, 90% of what they've done.

Ian: But again, you start talking to, global wealth management firms, and frequently one comes up against people saying, yeah, there is a view that if we can build something that can meet UK regulatory standards, we've got no problem rolling it out anywhere else in the world. And I think one of the challenges perhaps that some of your, I mean we've talked about this on previous occasions. The great range of financial services, software businesses you've got over there, you've got a huge domestic market, which is very attractive. But there is a definite difference in the level of regulatory reporting and regulatory structures, that someone building a piece of software to meet UK requirements and perhaps Australian requirements, would have to put a lot more into a system, which probably makes it more difficult to justify all the extra work to take that system out to other jurisdictions.

Ian: Whereas if I load it I can think of systems that are being built by companies, not just in the UK, Australia is another example where they're built, built with a whole load of extra regulatory requirements built in. If they want to take some of those systems into the US, actually just turn things off rather than turn things on. The flip of that is it's important to present both sides. The flip of that is I do frequently look at some of the things that your software companies deliver, I think if only we could never deploy that in the UK because of X, Y and Z regulation. So you've got to get the right balance. Regulation is a catalyst for innovation, not a restriction on it. That's a really important thing. Also, if you get the regulator overreact, which we are getting and have had over here, recently. '90s the early nineties, we had a massive, massive, scandal about people who had been given the wrong advice around transferring out of defined benefit pensions.

Ian: And I think it's one of those things you've got to be very careful about saying, well, you're given the wrong advice on, perhaps you might have made a recommendation five years ago and suddenly someone's looking at it and this will absolutely loom up now. You make a recommendation on something that's got a 25 year timeline until you get to knowing whether it was the right advice or not. And someone turns around after five years and said, ah, well if we look at that now it was wrong. But hang on a minute, it's the customer had a 25 year investment horizon, just trying to take a snapshot, and the situation we have right now where on the one hand, yes because of pension freedoms, we've seen a huge amount again of defined benefit transfer business. But what it's done is it's virtually causing all the professional indemnity capacity to dry up.

Ian: So it's actually getting very hard for advisors to get insurance on defined benefit transfer advice. And if they can't get the insurance, they can't give the advice. So actually that area of the advice market is drying up and it will be very, very difficult because that is an area where, I can think of an example of somebody I know well myself who used to work for one of the insurance companies. So you could transfer out of the company's very, very DB scheme, but he basically said he was going to need to claim pension with no growth whatsoever, for 35 years before he wasn't better off in having transferred out. However, asset values declined 25% in 10 days and all of a sudden is that advice questionable?

Craig: Sounds like it.

Ian: It's one of the things that's very difficult, when people try and look at a longterm investment and test it against a very short time scale. I think you've gotta be really, really careful, around that.

Invest In Others

Robo-Advisors in the News

Craig: One of the things that you mentioned in our pre interview before we started this episode, you were talking about robo-advisors and I'm going to combine this with the news. So there's been a couple of robo-advisors in the news. I wrote an article about robo-advisors and a company called Motif, which was sort of a robo-advisor. Do you have any comment on that?

Ian: That's a really interesting one, isn't it? Because, they certainly seemed to capture people's imagination for awhile. I think it was quite a novel approach. But then as was quite clear, they raised so much money, and what sort of level of asset value where they going to need to get to ever pay it back?

Craig: I wrote that as well. They took in $126 million. And their total assets were barely $1 billion, and three quarters of that was institutional, which isn't a bad thing. They were innovative when they started, but as any innovation we've seen, it's going to get copied and you need to be aware of that and ready for it. And you need to be able to adjust and keep your value prop, and they didn't seem to do that, they just sort of putted along.

Ian: I mean, we had one over here that shut recently that had expenses of more than $1 million. And when all the liquidation documents came out, it appeared that they had income of a thousand. Literally about a thousand pound income a year, against a million in expenses. I mean, ran over multiple years and actually got acquired.

Craig: Yeah, I'd read that. So Motif was acquired, right? So two of them are robo advice and then a company called AdvisorEngine, which I like to call a robo platform, they enable advisors to launch their own robos. They were not B2C, but B2B, they were acquired by Franklin Templeton, the asset manager. One thing you mentioned was just talking about the term robo advice, is it the right term? Are they really robo-advisors or do you say, are they actually robo asset allocators?

Ian: I think that robo accumulation asset allocators, how many of these players are actually delivering anything that would work in decumulation? Sorry, that's a horrible word, decumulation.

Craig: Financial services is great for these terms that no one knows what they mean. Call it retirement spending, right?

Ian: I know a couple of people, that are due to be coming to market with full blown accumulation and decumulation robos. And interestingly one of these, for example, it's a financial institution that's put millions upon millions into building it all and they haven't taken it. I think when that comes to market, and I've spent quite a lot of time looking at it over the last couple of years as they've been building it, that will be a transformation because it literally works by harvesting a vast amount of data, putting it into a model, which typically will run about 3 million scenarios before coming out with a plan for the consumer.

Craig: Like a Monte Carlo?

Ian: No, this is more than that. It's looking at a different tax wrappers, it's looking at different asset mixes.

Craig: So a multi-goal analytical tool.

Ian: It goes into all your different spending, different types of spending, but it also goes into not just traditional retirement investment products, but also things like reverse mortgages. It genuinely has been built as an end to end, annuity, traditional, platform type products, draw down products, and equity release, reverse mortgages. That has been built. Incredibly powerful engine, and that's what I would call robo advice.

Craig: What's the name of that company?

Ian: It's not live yet.

Craig: They're in stealth mode.

Ian: Yes. I would say it will go live soon, but then I was having conversations and helping them run research events back 15 months ago when it was expected to go, but they're just doing it quietly. You can't really say in the back room because there's a huge team of people working on it.I think if we call it automated advice, which I think is a far better phrase, I think everybody, including the robos, hates the robo phrase. Advice is far more than just giving somebody an asset model and saying, put your cash into that.

The Composition of Advice

Craig: What else is there? What else do you consider in your point of view, to be part of the advice? What else do you need to give if you're giving advice besides asset allocation?

Ian: Full look at the individual's holistic position, understand their goals and understand their needs. Understand in far more detail than these things usually do in the so called robo advisors attitude to risk, capacity for loss. Most of these are, I think as they are right now, just just a matter of an easier way to invest your money and we've delivered a better onboarding proposition to enable you to hold a particular asset portfolio. To me that's not advice. Advice is far wider. I think that the best thing I've seen in the US that's near it, is United Income which got bought by Capital One a few months ago.

Craig: Why'd you like that so much?

Ian: Well they're going through the full range of, they're genuinely getting end to end into what the customer needs. I mean that's the only thing I've seen in the US that could quite easily and it won't happen now, I wrote a piece when it happened saying how sad I was that it got bought by Capital One because it meant the service was never going to come to the UK or it's highly unlikely to ever come to the UK because Capital One over here really just have a credit card business they don't have much else. It's the only thing I've seen out of the US that could have come straight over here and would adjust. Matt Fellowes obviously was the main force behind it. We also had Elizabeth Kelly who spent a lot of time in the previous administration working at the White House and speaking to financial regulators around the world, you can very much see their fingerprints on it. I think they've done amazing things. Would have been great to see that come over here, but you know.

Craig: But that creates an opportunity for another firm in the UK to build something.

Ian: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. I think the thing is with full robo advice, it's a far more complicated process. Very few people so far have built anything that's powerful enough to go end to end through all the options. I'm sure people will, but it's not something you get some money quickly make a lot of announcements, get something out quickly. It's a longterm process. You need to go away probably for two, three, four years and build and build and build.

Ian: Then you have something. No doubt in my mind that these things will emerge on both sides of the Atlantic and elsewhere in the world. True advice, in an automated process. And you know, let's face it where we are right now, interpersonal skills still play a huge role in financial advice.

Craig: Why do you say that?

Ian: When people are taking life decisions, especially if you're at decumulation, that they can't afford to get wrong. When you start getting into income in retirement, if you get it all wrong, it's highly unlikely the people have the opportunity to go out and earn all the money again. If you get it wrong and they lose 30, 40%, that ain't coming back. Not for those people.

Craig: Are you talking about the order of returns? Like if they have a big loss in the beginning it screws them up for the rest as opposed to they have big loss in the middle?

Ian: Older returns, but also, they don't have the capacity. Okay. If somebody in their 30s takes a very aggressive strategy and it all goes wrong, they've got another 20-30 years working, earning more money, to put themselves back in the position they were. When people have actually got to retirement, they're going to be taking the money out and they're not likely to see a further large injection of cash coming along to their savings pot.

Craig: Sure. So can you explain the interpersonal skills that are required?

Ian: I think we're at the situation today where the reality is that consumers still like speaking to people before taking financial decisions and the majority of them are not yet ready to trust technology with some of the most important financial decisions in their lives. Even if the technology is in reality far better placed to give that information and that guidance, the nature of human beings right now and our trust in technology or rather lack of it. If you look at a model that I think does work well, say Personal Capital, they've done really well. Heavy use of technology, but at the same time very much engaging humans in the process.

Craig: And they're for sale.

Ian: I must admit I hadn't seen that one. When did that one come out?

Craig: I saw an article over the weekend that JP Morgan had pulled out of the running to buy them. I think because they wanted too much money. They also did a fair amount of funding, and they're only around $12 billion in AUM, which is like $1.2 million in revenue at one basis point. So they want more, they want a billion and no one is willing to pay a billion, although I think they seem to have some pretty decent technology, at least their personal information manager.

Ian: I think if you look at the background of the business and the way it was set up in the first place, yeah. They really built some solid technology and their ability to sort of have a situation where you're going through virtual meetings, which we're all now moving to, they were doing it nearly 10 years ago. I remember speaking to Bill Harris, first time I ever met Bill was in San Francisco. They were literally building the the office in San Francisco around us. I mean, you the work men were in with hard hats on and it was right at the beginning of the business. I think the vision there was very much technology driven but they were good at pivoting really quickly. And obviously, Bill had an awful lot of experience from previous ventures and and a great management team there.

Traction of Digital Mobile Experiences

Craig: Let me be a little confrontational here. When you talk about people aren't ready for full digital advice. Some of the firms that I really like are the mobile app financial players like Acorns, Stash, Money Lion, and others. And just those three firms alone have like 12 or 13 million users. And if you had a couple more of those players, the mobile apps, they've got close to 30 million users of these mobile finance apps and who are all coming from different directions into wealth. Some start in wealth and move to banking, some start in banking, moved wealth, some start in lending and move into banking but they have 20-25 million users. Vanguard itself has 30 million customers. So all those firms, they're like Vanguard when you add them all up. And all those people who are using purely digital advice, now it may not be all their assets, it may only be a part, but it shows a lot of traction for purely digital mobile experiences with either finance, wealth, banking, lending.

Ian: Absolutely. But I think the point is, is that their primary investment vehicle? Take Monzo over here. You talk to millennials, they've all got a Monzo account. But then the question is, are you using that for your main banking? Oh, no, no, no. My salary goes into one of the big four. So my point is with those organizations 20, 30 years down the line, I'm absolutely convinced we'll have that trust. We'll probably have that trust in 10 years, maybe even 5. I just want to come back for a minute to the point of, for the immediate foreseeable future, the best mix is the human delivering the trust or obtaining the trust and the technology doing the hard number crunching. No one in their right mind should be trying to compete with a piece of silicon doing hard number crunching because carbon brain ain't up to it.

Craig: Carbon-based brains?

Ian: Silicon-carbon mix is the best mix.

Craig: Pure carbon, not so good.

Ian: Well, right now we can't process numbers anywhere near as fast as a piece of silicon. That's where we are today.

Financial Advisor Regulation

Craig: On that note, I want to wrap things up. Ian McKenna, live from the UK, live from London. Thank you very much for being on the program and sharing with us all your thoughts and I really appreciate it.

Ian: You're very welcome. Great talking to everyone. Cheers.

Craig: Hey, it's Craig again. Just want to do a quick recap of my interview with Ian McKenna. I really liked his comment about regulation being the catalyst for innovation, that's a keeper. Also about robo advice, that's not the right term, really asset allocators. And full robo advice is a very complicated process, and how interpersonal skills still play a huge role in financial advice. For the foreseeable future, as Ian says, the best mix is both human on the trust side, and the technology on the automation side. I would certainly agree with that. So I hope you enjoy this. Please remember to subscribe everywhere the podcast is available and I look forward to seeing you again next time.