Saturday 15 February 2014

The Piano, FCA Enforcement and Lloyds TSB, Halifax and Bank of Scotland

I heard once that you can’t learn music from the noise that a grand-piano makes when you drop it down a staircase.  Alas, we should be able to learn something about risk management from the FCA’s enforcement notices.  That’s one of my ambitions for 2014. 

I am starting with the FCA’s enforcement action on Lloyds TSB, Halifax and Bank of Scotland announced on 10th December 2013 (here – all references are from this document).  The case relates to the lack of appropriate controls around financial incentives to advisers in branches.   

The FCA clarifies at the outset that there is nothing in the rules against “[incentivising] staff to sell a particular product” provided that a firm’s “systems and controls are sufficiently robust and sophisticated to mitigate effectively the risk of any adverse impact the incentives may have on staff behaviour”.

It is therefore not entirely surprising that the FCA articulates in detail the specific features of the remuneration system that added to the risk of consumer detriment, including

1.       variable basic salaries;
2.       bonus thresholds disproportionate effects for marginal sales;
3.       uncapped bonuses; and
4.       advanced bonus payments that could result in advisers being in debt. 

The FCA makes an interesting comment about the sophistication of the performance reward and the concern that senior management did not appreciate the potential consequences.  “The root cause of these deficiencies was the collective failure of the Firms’ senior management to identify sufficiently remuneration and incentives given to advisers as a key area of risks.” 
I was puzzled as to why this could happen.  Here are my own explanation from reading the details of the case.
1.     The complexity of the system makes it challenging understanding the incentive properties.  It seems that the system involved: (a) translating premium and product features into “points” (see example in page 15); (b) checking against target “points” monthly and on a rolling three months basis; and (c) translating points into pounds.  Inferring the incentive properties and potential product bias would not have been straightforward for busy executives. 
2.      A possible misunderstanding of the incentive properties of headline bonuses.  In some cases, the incentives could be small in absolute terms, e.g. £5,000 over a year if monthly targets were consistently met.  However, I wonder if there was an appreciation of the impact on behaviour for someone on a £33k salary (mid-tier adviser, para 4.29)  Indeed, the FCA says that the relevant governance committee “only considered the [remuneration] schemes at a high level” (para 4.104(1)).

Given that, it is not surprising that these performance incentives were not backed by appropriate controls.  In particular, it is not surprising that quality controls such as file reviews focused on sales that were regarded as ‘high risk’ by reference to customer rather than the adviser profile or track record. 
There are also two interesting comments in the enforcement notice about controls. 
1.       The main failure was not the absence of controls but the lack of appropriate linkages between relevant controls.  In particular, while there were certain quality assessments of sales, advisers could receive their bonuses even if issues had been identified.

2.       “The large number of people involved in the process [of governance over the incentive schemes] and the fragmented nature of the controls.” 
This is a good illustration of the observation that the main challenge of risk management is to apply the appropriate “top down” vision and strategy.  In its absence plenty of activity and resources, leading to potential complexity, will take place as evidenced here but with limited effectiveness.  In this case, the fine was £28m which excludes remediation costs, compensation and management time.

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