Sales Commission and Market Failure

Time to give those “poor” MPs a rest, and consider another issue which might be germane.

Most insurance-based savings products, such as pensions and endowments, are sold on commission. There is a saying in the insurance industry that insurance is never bought, it is always sold.

In the recession of the early 1980s, and again in the early 1990s, commission-based sales jobs were always on offer. You could earn a lot of money selling life-insurance, but most people I knew were never so desperate as to sacrifice their integrity that far. The jobs were entitled “financial adviser”, but the only skill the “adviser” needed was rote-perfect knowledge of the policy sales pitch. The jobs were sales jobs, pure and simple: If you didn’t sell any policies, you didn’t make any money, and to the punter, commission was the hidden cost of “free” financial advice. “Advisers” were forbidden to disclose the level of their commission; so since solicitors were required by the Law Society fully to account to their clients for any commission they were paid on products bought on their behalf,  many life companies refused to sell through solicitors.

Some time before that, the cosy City club of life insurers had an agreement about the maximum levels of commission they would pay their sales people. Today, such an agreement would be unlawful; but back then, it was binding on its members. However, a small City merchant bank, Hambros, set up a life department and didn’t join the life insurer’s club. After all, Hambros were already a member of the Accepting Houses Committee (which had nothing to do with life insurance, but was another cosy City club). Hambros decided to ignore the maximum commission rule, and pay its sales team much higher commission than anyone else. This was a very successful strategy, and Hambro Life quickly became bigger than its parent.  Hambro Life eventually became Allied Dunbar. The interesting thing about this is that Hambro Life grew its market share only by paying its sales staff high commission. It had nothing to do with the benefits to policy holders.

All the major life offices paid commission to their sales staff. The main exception was the Equitable Life, whose sales staff were paid salaries.  Unfortunately, shorn of the incentive of commission, they were less succesful, so the Equitable resorted to sweetening its sales offering with a promise (a guaranteed annuity rate) that would eventually destroy the organisation.

The lack of transparency in commissions led to many abuses. Various systems of regulation were imposed over the years, with the life offices fiercely resisting commission disclosure for years. Now, however, commission must in most cases be disclosed. There is no such thing as free financial advice, and independent financial advisers started charging fees, offsetting them against the commission they received.

One of the biggest problems emerged with endowment mortgages. Endowment mortgages used to be quite a good idea, for tax reasons. There used to be a 50% tax credit for life insurance premiums, and there was also full tax relief on mortgage interest.  So if you took out an interest only loan, the interest is payable in full for the full period of the loan, and the tax relief would be continuing, whereas with a repayment mortgage the interest (and thus the tax relief) reduces over time.  Tie in an endowment policy, with its 50% tax relief, to deal with the principal of the loan, and you had a product that, in theory at least, could save the borrower some tax. However,  tax credit on life insurance premiums was abolished in the 1980s, and mortgage interest tax relief was curtailed (it, too, is now abolished).  This made endowment mortgages much less efficient; but they were entrenched. Estate agents were paid commission for arranging endowment mortgages; lenders regarded the additional security of a life policy as justification for increasing the loan-to-value ratio beyond the 85% with which they had been comfortable in the past, and everyone benefitted, except of course those who bought such policies. It quickly became apparent that they were never going to pay out the full value, and it was clear that most endowment mortgages sold after about 1988 were mis-sold.  Many of the brokers who mis-sold them were commission-only agents. My partner and I were one of many victims of this; we received no compensation because we had changed the mortgage to a repayment basis and weren’t going to suffer unduly. Apart from having a life policy that we had bought on the firm assurance (an express promise from the long-vanished broker) that on maturity it would pay out at least the full value of the mortgage, and is worth less than we have paid for it in total.  The endowment fiasco was certainly a prime example of commission-based sales causing market failure.

Endowments and pension products are basically the same thing. Commission disclosure seems to me to be a sine qua non for any commission-based sales, but I would say that wouldn’t I, and  it’s not really enough. After all, when I bought my duff endowment mortgage, I knew the broker was going to get most of my first year’s endowment contributions, even if I didn’t know exactly how much; I still bought the policy. The problem is that it inevitably distorts “best advice”.  There are rules about what financial advice advisers can give, which de-skills them and reduces a complex subject to a series of regulated tick-boxes. It’s going to be hard for a broker or adviser to advise against buying a savings product, even if objectively such advice is the best for the client concerned, when to do so means that he will not be paid. It demands an unrealistic expectation of the adviser’s integrity.

Commission creates a short-term/long-term mismatch, and this is really where it goes wrong. I’m talking here just about long-term regular savings contracts like endowments and money-purchase pensions, but we will see how the problem extends to all commission based sales, including vanilla stockbroking.  As a saver, my interests lie in the long-term performance of the product, whereas my adviser’s interests like in the attached commission.  Twenty-five years’ time matters for me, not for the broker. So a first step could be to require an alignment of interests. If my broker is to get commission, it should be paid in the form of units in the fund backing the policy he sells me. If he needs money now, he can borrow it at commercial rates against the security of those units, just as I have done for my mortgage.

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