The recent stock market rally has masked a fundamental change going on behind the scenes of UK Financial Services plc.
Whether we are at the start of a bull market or in the midst of a bear market rally a large number of the large institutions we've come to love/loath* (delete as appropriate) are fundamentally re-appraising their position in the market.
What is perhaps most interesting, demonstrated by recent differing stances on the group personal pensions (GPP) market, is the complete lack of emerging consensus.
While Aviva threw at least verbal support behind GPPs, others questionned their place in the market.
So, who is right? Ultimately this all comes down to the effective (or otherwise) deployment of capital in retail financial services.
Far smarter individuals than myself have been questioning the GPP financial model for years. The sometimes enormous commissions and highly competitive margins that characterise this market just don't seem to stack up as they once did.
The old option of fleecing the customer doesn't exist and product providers and advisers/distributors are directly competing with each other. Whether the institutions elect to respond by seeking to dis-intermediate the advisers is the big question and one to which the answer may not become clear for another three to five years.
The variable annuity market is another thing altogether. I attended a conference late last year at which a scientist from one of the leading so-called 'third-way' providers pretty much confirmed that (a) they didn't know what the true risks were and (b) they couldn't hedge it in any event.
It is staggering to see so many providers pile into this market and proclaim it as the future. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see this product type go the same way as Tony Blair's identically-named 'initiative'.
After all, how many life company shareholders want to run very long term mortality and market risks if the underlying risks are fundamentally unpriceable and unhedgeable? When you add this to the broader distribution discussions and the not-quite-quick-enough move toward advisers being paid by the customer rather than by the product provider, it feels to me that massive change is underfoot.
But there are still some opportunities out there. The wrap market is finally gaining some momentum and largely seems to have been immune from this year's slump in IFA sales.
Whether the legacy institutions have the culture and the market understanding to be successful in this area is another matter. Moving a large organisation from shifting products through marginal differentiation and commission incentives is a world away from being truly aligned with advisers and recognising you are in business to provide services to the market.
We are witnessing the consumerisation of the retail financial services market and while change is often slow it is now happening.
The detail of how the old-industry looks in five years time is anyone's guess but my money says it will look absolutely nothing like it does today. After all, you can only flog a dead horse for so long.
David Ferguson is chief executive of Nucleus FinancialIFAonline
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