The simple way to fix the finance industry

The financial management industry is bending over backwards to win back the public's trust. But as Merryn Somerset Webb explains, they still don't get it.

The financial industry wants to know how it can make the general public trust it again. It has written reams of research, and organised seminars to discuss the problem. It has also, the majority of the time, entirely missed the point.

This lack of trust is not down to any specific incident. It isn't payment protection insurance. It isn't packaged bank accounts, unusable mobile-phone insurance, or even rip-off annuities. And we don't dislike the fund-management industry because it somehow manages to underperform and to charge performance fees. These are all merely symptomatic of the real problem lack of transparency.

Think about how you get charged for most financial services. Almost no one quotes a cost in pounds and pence. It's always low-sounding percentages: 1%, 1.5%, 0.5% and so on. You might think this doesn't matter. But it does. People in finance grasp percentages, but not everyone does. So quote a percentage cost and you aren't actually telling someone the price.

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That makes it hard for them to trust you. Now look at a brand that most of the finance industry loves to hate: Wonga. Its business model is based on lending money to the needy at rates well into the thousands of per cent. Shocking.

However, look not at the rate, but at what the website says. The main information is in pounds and pence. Want £200 for a week? That will cost you £19.89. Want £400? That'll be £33.89. Miss a payment? £30. Wonga is very expensive. But it is also delightfully clear: 98% of users say it is "easy to use". And there are a million of them. We might hate Wonga, but that doesn't mean its users do. There's a lesson here for the rest of the finance industry. Maybe price doesn't matter as much as clarity and the ability to compare prices.

Wonga isn't the only company finding that clarity works. In Scotland, estate agency Mov8 charges a flat fee of £600 a sale. Its boards are everywhere. I have also just come across a new service from property agent Henry Pryor. I have long thought that anyone buying a house should hire an agent to work for them. After all, the estate agent isn't working for you, he's working for the seller.

The trouble is, buying agents in Britain are usually geared towards the top end. They also work on a percentage basis. So use one to buy a £1m house and you will be hit with a £25,000 bill on top of the pile you already have (stamp duty, legal fees, etc). The average buyer can't cope with this. What they might be able to cope with is Pryor's new service Pocket Agent. It costs £180 a week and offers advice and help throughout the buying process at a price everyone can understand.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.