Examination of Witness

Financial Services Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 17th November 2020.

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Chris Cummings gave evidence.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton 2:02 pm, 17th November 2020

I remind members of the Committee sitting on this side of the room, or in the Public Gallery, to use the standing mikes when posing their questions. Our first witness this afternoon is Chris Cummings from the Investment Association. Mr Cummings, welcome.

Chris Cummings:

It is a pleasure to be here. Thank you for your time.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

We have until 2.45 for this session. Mr Cummings, can you first of all introduce yourself for the record?

Chris Cummings:

Good afternoon. My name is Chris Cummings. I am chief executive of the Investment Association, the representative body for UK-based fund managers, an industry now of some £8.5 trillion pounds, based here in the UK. Our products and services are used by three quarters of UK households, and we are deeply grateful for the opportunity to give evidence to your Bill session this afternoon.

Photo of John Glen John Glen Minister of State (Treasury) (City), The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

Q57 Chris, it is good to see you. Thank you very much for addressing the Committee. Obviously, the Bill has a large number of measures, some of which will be of more interest to your members than others. I think it would be useful for the Committee if you could set out the significance to consumers of introducing a more proportionate regime for overseas funds to access the UK based on equivalence, and why it is important for consumers to be able to access funds based outside the UK. Perhaps you could tell us what your members feel about that measure and whether you have any reservations about it.

Chris Cummings:

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to one of the most central parts of the Bill. May I take a moment to congratulate you and your team on introducing the Bill? It provides much-needed reassurance to my industry, so thank you for that.

The industry is very pleased to see the overseas funds regime introduced as part of the Bill. Around 9,000 funds are currently available to UK investors as a result of the current regime. The reason we feel it is in the interests of UK savers and investors to have access to such a variety of funds is that it brings to the market not only choice but much-needed competition. It means that individual investors have greater choice and an ability to tailor their portfolio in a way that makes sense to them and reflects their risk profile. It is really the foundation of why the UK is the pre-eminent fund centre, not just in Europe, but globally. As the Minister knows, the UK has long enjoyed a reputation for being an attractive centre for fund management. That is built on the ability of UK investors to access an innovative and ever-adapting fund market.

We support this measure in the Bill wholeheartedly. At the moment, as the Minister knows, we manage around 37% of Europe’s assets, which is enabled through measures such as this. It is important for UK savers and investors; having such a variety of funds goes to the heart of having such a sophisticated savings environment in the UK.

It is important to note that if there was a cliff edge—if UK investors were not able to access these funds—that would constrict consumer choice. In trying to replicate something akin to what we have at the moment, we would bring a heavy burden of extra costs on to the industry and greater bureaucracy. It would reduce significantly the number of funds to which UK investors could have access. That is why we believe that the overseas fund regime is material.

It is worth contrasting that with what we see at the moment. In order to help navigate these turbulent waters through the Brexit period, I was delighted that the Government heard our calls to introduce a temporary permissions regime with the Financial Conduct Authority. I am pleased to note that the Bill extends the period from three to five years for that requirement, which is very good. It also allows us to tackle two particular issues wrapped up in the overseas funds regime.

First, there is a review of section 272, which is the current structure by which a fund sponsor or investment management company would seek to have their fund recognised by the FCA—our regulator here in the UK. Section 272 is okay, but it is rather cumbersome. It does not stand up well compared to international comparators. It is a rather lengthy form, which takes a while to complete and gives the FCA a six-month period to look at approving that particular fund.

The proposals in the Bill take us to a completely different level, where the FCA is able to look at fund structures across the piece rather than at each individual fund. We feel that is a big step forward. While section 272 could be reviewed and reformed, there is a different category of opportunity presented by the Bill and that is why our industry is so keen to see the Bill come forward and have the overseas fund regime baked into it as a measure that goes ahead. I will pause there in case there are comments before I move on to comment on equivalence, as you were kind enough to mention.

Photo of John Glen John Glen Minister of State (Treasury) (City), The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

Q It would probably be worth talking about equivalence. I am keen at this point to get an explanation of the measure for the Committee. I am sure others will want to probe some of the weaknesses or disadvantages that they may perceive.

Chris Cummings:

Currently, we enjoy unfettered marketing right across the whole of Europe and the EEA. Post Brexit, naturally, that will come to an end. The way that the regulatory authorities assess whether a particular fund is suitable is to judge the equivalence of the regime of the sponsoring organisation or where the organisation is based. Having that judgment of equivalence has been one of our industry’s clear calls throughout the Brexit process.

We were pleased that the Chancellor took a step forward in recognising and granting equivalence to a limited measure in the House of Commons in his statement last week. We think that was absolutely in the right direction. We have been unstinting in our calls for the European Commission and our European regulator, the European Securities and Markets Authority, to respond to those in kind and move forward so that the equivalence determination could have been made by now and be working. We were sorely disappointed that in June ESMA decided not only not to make a decision on equivalence, but to defer it for a period of time until after the IFR comes into effect.

We feel that that was a missed opportunity to settle the fact that the UK and the EU would be equivalent, which we currently are, having adopted, rather in full vigour, the European rules under which our industry labours. We are hopeful that continuing industry efforts to encourage ESMA and the European Commission to recognise the UK as equivalent will come through, but we are more than pleased with the steps that the Chancellor announced and the comments that are carried forward in the Bill. At the moment, we see that as a first step, but we look forward to greater work being done on this in the months and years ahead.

Photo of Pat McFadden Pat McFadden Shadow Economic Secretary (Treasury)

Chris, good afternoon and thanks for giving evidence today. I want to continue to ask about the same things.Q

The Bill does lots of different things, but I would like to mention two. First, it onshores or incorporates a significant body of EU law through different directives into UK law and gives the governance of those to the UK regulators. Secondly, it sets up this overseas fund regime, by which it grants equivalence on a country-by-country basis. It says that the Treasury will make these equivalence decisions as well. The Chancellor announced the direction of travel last Monday.

How do you see the relationship between these two different parts of the Bill? In theory, in future, having onshored the body of EU law and the directives, we are now at liberty to depart from them if we so choose. Do you see a relationship between that debate around divergence and the degree of divergence that the UK decides to opt for and the equivalence decision that we now need from the rest of the EU?

Chris Cummings:

It is worth reflecting on the good work that has been done so far in trying to bring the different regimes together and match equivalence. Looking to the future, there is a strong argument for the UK to continue to bolster its presence in the international standard-setting fora, whether that is the Financial Stability Board, the International Organisation of Securities Commissions, Basel, and so on. Our authorities can continue to play a very strong role in arguing for what our industry would prefer, which is global and international standards.

We continually push for international standards as a global industry because that allows us to operate with reduced bureaucracy and by taking costs out of the organisation so we can really focus on looking after client needs. The UK has an outstanding track record of having its policymakers and regulators taken seriously in those international fora, because of the scale of the market that we have in the UK and the sophistication of our capital market in particular. At that level, if we can push for international standards in an international environment, that reduces some of the potential friction between the EU and the UK or other jurisdictions about where divergence may or may not be happening. That is the first thing we would like to stress—the international nature.

Secondly, something that has become part of the discussion in terms of the future relationship of the UK and the EU, and which our industry thoroughly supports, is a much clearer focus on outcomes and outcome-based regulation. It is noticeable that across the EEA there are different approaches in different European jurisdictions, all of which have been judged equivalent so far. Recognising that different jurisdictions will walk up to the same issue from different directions, yet seeking to achieve the same thing, that is the material part.

The third area I would just point to, if I may, is the depth of relationship between the UK authorities and those across the EU, not just in ESMA, our European regulator, but in the national domestic regulatory authorities. It is still absolutely the case that the UK policy-making apparatus—the UK regulatory bodies—is seen to have considerable expertise to offer. So just because we start in different places, it does not mean that we should not see the UK taking a little leadership and the EU tacking towards us in terms of lessons learned because of the sophistication of the market that we can offer. That was one of the reasons why we in the IA, among many other organisations, through the Brexit process was keen to press for a regulator to regulate a dialogue, which could be technically oriented, focused on bringing market and regulatory understanding to bear and making sure that there was a no-surprises, keeping-markets-open focus through the process that we have been through.

So I do not see equivalence and divergence as axiomatically pulling in different directions. I think what we will undoubtedly see is a period where the definition of equivalence needs to be—we need to have a thoughtful discussion, actually, about the substance of equivalence, moving away from its ephemeral nature and the fact that it can be granted or dismissed within a 30-day notice period. We need to have a much more joined-up and mature discussion about how two major markets can keep on doing business together, particularly in investment management when, as I mentioned earlier, 37% of Europe’s assets are managed here in the UK and when, for certain member states, whether it is the Dutch pensions industry or something else, the quality of investment management conducted here in the UK is seen as a prized asset and something that they want to learn from and continue to enjoy the benefit of.

Photo of Pat McFadden Pat McFadden Shadow Economic Secretary (Treasury)

Q What would be the practical implications for UK-based investment companies— your members—if we stayed where we are now, with the UK having granted equivalence recognition to EU-based companies but not having a reciprocal recognition in return?

Chris Cummings:

We have been helping our members prepare for all shades of Brexit outcome over the last four years. Firms have taken the decisions that inevitably they would take, so they have set up extra offices, they have recruited further staff, they have gained the necessary permissions and licences from the national competence authorities. At the moment, even with, perhaps, no deal or a rather thin deal, we are as well prepared for that outcome as it is possible to be. We are giving much more thought to the companies that we invest in—everything from life sciences to technology, to transport and infrastructure, to make sure that those companies are well prepared for the Brexit outcomes, but from our industry’s point of view, recognising the equivalence decisions that have been made today, we are set as fair as any industry can be. I am trying not to over-promise, but suggesting to you that the industry has thought long and hard about potential outcomes, and we are as prepared as we can be for immediate issues.

Photo of Pat McFadden Pat McFadden Shadow Economic Secretary (Treasury)

Q Thanks. Can I slightly switch subjects now, to ask you about packaged retail investment and insurance-based products? The Bill removes the requirement for performance scenarios on PRIIPs. Could you just set out for us, in as simple terms as possible, what is wrong with these performance scenarios, and why there is a desire to remove them? If they are removed, what kind of information should be provided to consumers to help them make as informed an investment choice as people can?

Chris Cummings:

Thank you for the question. You have touched on such an important issue for our industry. Through the consultation on PRIIPs we highlighted to EU policy makers and regulators, to our own Financial Conduct Authority and others, the dangers that we saw in the PRIIPs key information document, the PRIIPs KID. Because of how the methodology for PRIIPs was created—taking a rather avant-garde view of the calculation basis—it meant that we could have negative transaction costs. Somebody could trade in the market and it would not only not cost them any money; they could actually lose money by making a trade. That led to some perverse outcomes that were pro-cyclical in the presentation of the information they gave.

Let me give you an example by reflecting back on a new fund that has had just two or three years’ experience. Imagine if, over the course of its life, that fund had had a very strong performance; it had done very well over a three or four year period. Because of the pro-cyclicality of how it had to report performance scenarios—looking to the future—it would have to present a potential investor with scenarios that were entirely positive and that generated levels of return that nobody in the industry would seriously put in front of a retail investor to suggest that this was what they could actually get. They were being forced to do it because of the methodology—the calculation basis—which reflected only that, if you had a few good years of performance, your fund would continue to have good years of performance. Similarly, if your fund had had a few bad years of performance, all you could project was that that bad performance would just continue and continue. That was because of the calculation basis and the way that the rules were written.

As an industry, we kept drawing this issue to the attention of the policy-making community in order to say that, if nothing else, when it comes to disclosure and investment, we have managed to convey the central message that past performance is no guarantee of future performance. Please let us keep on reminding people that past performance is no guarantee of future performance. Sadly, that requirement was taken away. The new calculation basis was introduced, which led to the industry ultimately being forced by its regulator to produce this pro-cyclical—and deeply misleading, in our view—information.

We continued to lobby against the wider introduction of the PRIIPs KID, arguing first that it should not be introduced. Secondly, having lost that argument and seen that that it was introduced only to closed-ended funds, we argued that it should be kept there until the wider implications were seen and not extended into the world of undertakings for the collective investment in transferable securities, because of the scale of UCITS and how many millions of people across the UK and Europe rely on them.

We were genuinely heartened when the Treasury announced that, post Brexit, it would be undertaking a review of the PRIIPs KID. What we hope to see, actually, is a wider-scale review of disclosure, whereby we can start from a different position. Given the technologically advanced world that we are living in today—the greater use of mobile phones, applications and computers, and just understanding that people engage with financial services in a very different way—could we have a rounder discussion about how we can do the thing that we want to do as an industry? We want to have a more engaged client base and to help them understand the different funds that are available and the different risk profiles of those funds, so that they can invest with more confidence, and certainly with more clarity about likely outcomes, rather than having to give false performance scenarios that simply nobody trusted in the industry.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

I have a couple of questions on equivalence. Equivalence is a bit of a point in time. How far do you feel that the limits of equivalence could go? How much change would happen before that was withdrawn?Q

Chris Cummings:

I think this is a “two ends of the telescope” question, if you pardon the analogy. We tend to think a lot about the UK changing rules and changing approaches, and there are one or two examples of that in the Bill—we have just mentioned PRIIPs KID. There always seems to be a sense that it would be the UK moving away from the central European view of regulation. Of course, that need not be the case. There are a number of regulatory reviews that are timetabled to be considered by the European Commission. There is the alternative investment fund managers directive. There is the review of PRIIPs and so on. Looking two or three years out, there are quite a few opportunities where, actually, the UK may stay still because the rules work in practice and it could be the European Commission that is drifting away from the central scenario that we are in today. That is perhaps almost inevitable, looking 10 years out; there are bound to be changes to the regulatory architecture and the regulatory regime, because the UK will need to modernise its approach to regulation, and not only here and across Europe, but more globally, every economy is thinking about growth-oriented policies as a result of the covid crisis.

That is why, for us, we approach the discussion around equivalence very much from a point of view of saying, “Okay, even if the words on the page change, how can we make sure that the bandwidth is agreed by all sides, so that minor degrees of divergence from equivalence are not the straw that breaks the camel’s back?” That is why I come back to the point I was making just a moment ago about having a regulator to regulate a dialogue—a set, established forum where the FCA and the Prudential Regulation Authority can meet the European Securities and Markets Authority and the European Central Bank and so on, in order that information can be shared, regulatory approaches can be discussed and data can be shared as well, on a “no suprises” policy, so that we can make sure that in the UK and Europe there is a commonality of view, or a commonality of outcome certainly, that is being laboured towards.

I am confident that that would make sure that any discussions on equivalence are structurally much more sound and that we remove the political overlay. Across the industry, there is a concern that equivalence could be used as a political process rather than a regulatory one, which perhaps does not really lead to an outcome that is in the interests of savers and investors.

Every time a new rule is introduced that is different in the European Union from the UK, that adds costs to the industry, because we have to navigate our way through two sets of rules, which might not contradict, but simply do not join up. There are different reporting deadlines for data and so on. That is why we would really like to make sure we move to an outcome-based approach, rather than to a prescriptive, words on the page, exact phraseology, which will simply prove a headache for all.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

Q That is a good point about equivalence working on both sides; even though we have got off the bus, we might need to try to catch up with the bus to make sure we are still going in broadly the same direction. In your earlier answer, you mentioned other jurisdictions having more experience, having dealt with this for longer. Are there any particular examples that you feel would be useful, which the UK could learn lessons from?

Chris Cummings:

Our friends in Switzerland have been navigating these waters for a period of time. The Investment Association continues to cultivate deeper relationships with our Swiss opposite number to see how it has mapped the terrain. We should make sure that we learn the lessons from how the US and the EU have negotiated when it has come to major directives. We have had a few instances where either the US was trying to apply its rules extraterritorially, into the EU, or where the EU sought to apply its standards and approaches outside the EU.

A really noticeable one was around costs of research. The EU, as part of the MiFID approach, suggested that all research had to be paid for. Investment managers had to pay for research produced by investment banks; in effect, we had to hand over cash. In the US, those payments were illegal. So the two regulatory regimes, both trying to protect consumer interests, found themselves at loggerheads.

Through industry intervention and working very closely with the regulatory authorities in the UK and in Europe and the SEC in the US, we were able to come up with a reasonably uncomfortable but workable compromise that has lasted over three years now, which gets reviewed on an ad hoc basis, but which allows both markets to function, even though the rules do not align. It is that kind of approach that makes you think, well, it works but it is sub-optimal. It feels ephemeral and, from an industry point of view, it is something else that is a distraction from the work of looking after our clients and investors. That is why we think that an openness and transparency around regulatory initiatives and regulatory thinking will help cement relationships into the future.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

Q Thank you. That is useful. Is there anything else that you expected to see in the Bill or that you would like to see in the Bill?

Chris Cummings:

Actually, I think the Bill is a rather comprehensive document. I would defer to others who may have different opinions, but from the investment management industry, there is a good discussion about the overseas fund regime, which was essential for us; the future of passporting; a review of section 272, which we felt very strongly about; and of course equivalence. If anything, it goes towards what is most essential for our industry, which is protecting the delegation of portfolio management, because our industry in the UK is underpinned by an ability to manage the clients’ investments—yes, from the UK, but across Europe and much more internationally. Ensuring that ability to protect and preserve delegation is simply mission critical for the investment management industry, which is one of the few UK growth success stories that we have seen really expand over the past decade.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

Q Thank you. Lastly, are you clear enough on what happens for existing investors if equivalence is withdrawn?

Chris Cummings:

This is a matter that we have been working on very closely with our regulator, the FCA, and talking to Treasury about. It is part of the reason why, in firms’ preparations for—forgive the terminology—a no-deal or a hard-deal Brexit, the industry had to do the thing that we exist to do, which is look after our clients. So that has led to more substance, regulatorily speaking, being established in other jurisdictions, particularly in Luxembourg and Ireland, which have traditionally been the places where most investment management back-office work has been done, with the UK, of course, being the centre for fund management and the actual investment aspect of the industry.

Photo of Abena Oppong-Asare Abena Oppong-Asare Labour, Erith and Thamesmead

Q Thank you, Chair. Thank you for coming to speak to us. There are four audit firms and one of the allegations is that they are very close to each other and cosy with big companies. What are your thoughts on that? In the Bill, it is not very clear that that has been addressed.

Chris Cummings:

I am terribly sorry. I was having an IT glitch and I missed your question. I do apologise. Can I ask you please to repeat the question?

Photo of Abena Oppong-Asare Abena Oppong-Asare Labour, Erith and Thamesmead

Q The four audit firms: there are concerns that they are very cosy with each other and are very close with the big companies. The Bill does not essentially address that kind of issue. It does not seem very clear to me. Do you have any thoughts on how that could be addressed in the Bill to strengthen it so that there is better transparency and the relationship is less cosy?

Chris Cummings:

Thank you for the question. We take the very strong view that we, as investors, rely entirely on public information. The quality of information produced by management is pivotal to the investment decisions that we make as investors. That has led to the point now where the investment management industry has a stake in more than a third of the FTSE. We think long and hard about investing in any particular company, listed or unlisted, and that is why we believe that it is the investor who is the client of the audit. A company pays for the audit, but it is the investment community that is the client of the audit. That is why we are so outspoken in pushing for better quality audits, and ensuring that the chairs of the audit committee take their responsibilities towards their investors seriously.

We absolutely worry about too close a relationship between an auditor and the company that they are auditing. That is why we feel that audits should be reviewed and we are constantly striving to have a more competitive ecosystem in the audit world, so you raise a very good point. If I may, I will offer to review that section of the Bill in more detail, and if we see anything that strikes us as being too weak or in need of strengthening, I will write to you with our proposals on that very quickly.

Photo of Abena Oppong-Asare Abena Oppong-Asare Labour, Erith and Thamesmead

Q I want to follow up on that, because I recently read your comments about a new audit regulator in the Financial Times. The proposals gave me the impression that you felt that it would be able to ensure better reporting, and essentially hold the governance authority accountable to Parliament. Are you able to explain further about that?

Chris Cummings:

Indeed. The audit profession has been through three major reviews recently. We entirely support the proposals to bring ARGA into existence. The work the FRC has been doing to prepare for the transition to ARGA has been commendable, but we need to go one step further and actually encourage policy makers to ensure that ARGA is brought into being as quickly as possible. Personally, I have been impressed by the new head of the FRC’s ability to convene and cajole the audit companies to exercise some soft power, to encourage them to improve the quality of audit. Still, it is not the same as having that statutorily recognised independent regulator, and we encourage this Committee—and other parliamentarians —to push for the establishment of ARGA as soon as possible.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

I call Gareth Davies. Gareth, I think you will have to move to the microphone over there.

Photo of Gareth Davies Gareth Davies Conservative, Grantham and Stamford

First, Mr Cummings, thank you for your comments about the extended permissions and the overseas regime, which I would agree with. However, can I specifically ask about these 9,000 funds? My understanding is that around 75% of all EU-domiciled funds are a SICAV vehicle, and I have two questions on that. First, what is your assessment of the demand level from UK investors for the SICAV vehicle, given that typically, historically, they have been much more expensive than the UK-domiciled equivalent? Secondly, can you explain more about the complementary nature of these funds to our market, specifically as relates to money market funds?Q

Chris Cummings:

You are right in saying around 75% are UCITS. UCITS have become a global brand. It is a high watermark, at least currently, in an investor-centric investment vehicle, and rightly recognised by jurisdictions across Europe and internationally. In thinking about how the UK develops its own UK fund regime, which is some work that the IA has put forward to the Treasury and the FCA, we have taken the UCITS regime as our benchmark to think about how it can be expanded upon; how can it be modernised given the experience with UCITS over the last few years.

One of the core issues that the industry takes very seriously is better governance of funds. That is one of the reasons why we supported our regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority, in stipulating that, at fund level—not at company level—there must be an independent, non-executive director who asks the big questions about governance of the fund, and ensures that there is a clear value for money assessment at least annually, to drive down costs for investors and to ensure that investors are getting a better deal out of those funds. In terms of modernisation, we think that a great deal is already happening in the industry, with more to come.

Although money market funds are used by some retail investors, they are seen more as a capital markets instrument. Given their brevity, they tend to attract a lot of overnight money. Their particular structures are perhaps for more sophisticated professional and institutional investors. They are a useful counter, but really for us UCITS are the gold standard at the moment. We are naturally keen to extend the UCITS regime, especially post Brexit.

That is why we brought forward our own proposals for a long-term asset fund, which we think will not only modernise the UK fund regime but draw together some of the more interesting parts from other fund regimes. It has the benefits of an open-ended fund, and some of the advantages of a closed-ended fund, with an extra layer of governance. It will allow UK savers and investors, institutional as well as retail, to invest more in infrastructure, taking a longer-term view, and in what traditionally have been higher-growth companies—technology companies, life sciences, biotech and so on—taking a much longer-term perspective. We think that the long-term asset fund will be a great complement to the existing UK and European fund family.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

Does anyone else on the Committee wish to catch my eye in the remaining four minutes? In that case, thank you very much, Mr Cummings, for your evidence.