Need financial advice? Turn to the robots

Go to your high-street bank for financial advice and you will likely pay more than you will get back, says Merryn Somerset Webb. But help is on the way.

The UK's big banks aren't being kind to holders of cash Isas (individual savings accounts). Want proof? Have a look at the Santander Easy Isa. I don't know if it is easy or not, and I won't be applying to find out. That's because it pays 0.1% a year in interest. Yes, for every £1,000 you put into the Isa you'll get £1 back at the end of the year. I'd like to say that Santander was alone in this horrible neglect of their clients' interests. But of course, it isn't so: Halifax and HSBC have similarly awful deals on the go, says The Mail on Sunday.

Banks do this stuff because they can. People open Isas for the tax savings without checking if it is worth it or not (note that not only do you now pay no tax on the first £1,000 of interest payments you get, but that you can get rates of up to 5% on some current account). Then inertia sets in, and they just stick with the original account. A good organisation would alert customers to better deals. Banks tend not to.

That's something to bear in mind if you are thinking of looking for a little financial advice. Last week, Santander (provider of the above-mentioned Isa) announced that it intends to expand its investment-advice business dramatically: by the end of March, it will have an investment adviser in one in every four of its branches, with a view to helping those with£50,000-plus figure out what to do with it.

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There are problems here. The first is Santander's rubbish record. As Jeff Prestridge notes in The Mail on Sunday, only two years ago Santander was fined £12.5m by the Financial Conduct Authority for "widespread investment-advice failings". And the advisers won't really be advisers they will only be suggesting Santander's own products, so they will really be sales people. The third is cost.

Ask a man with his name on a badge for financial advice in a Santander branch on your £50,000 and his spiel will cost you £1,250 (2.5% of your assets, with a cap at £3,750). That's outrageous and given the historical performance of investment funds run by the retail banks, it's also a sum you're unlikely to make back in capital gains.

The good news is that there will soon,I think, be better places for thosewith £50,000 to put their money, thanwith the same people who are happyto pay them 0.1% on their Isas."Technology will provide the answer," says Claer Barrett in the FT. All sorts of providers are now working toprovide "robo" services offeringlow-cost automated investment advice.

If you want to retire rich and you don't want to do any investing for yourself, the best way forward is probably to "spend less, save more" and then wait to see what those providers come up with in 2016.

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.