financial services


Welcome to INSIGHTS, an independent blog for independent thinkers

Asparagus and coffee have much in common with experts. I´ll come back to this later.

Perversely, because of this pandemic, some fallacies and perceptions have been exposed to the harsh light of day. In America, for example, this year’s presidential election has turned “The land of the free” into “The land of the free-for-all”. I should add that it is of little concern to me what relations citizens have with their president; it is what relations the president has with other countries that matter to me. So, November is a month of great significance for both Americans and, specifically, those countries which, along with America, comprise collectively “the West”.

Looking at the broader picture, as the world – eventually – recovers from the pandemic, never before has the importance of honesty and competency been more important. This is the second time that such virtues and abilities have been put in the spotlight during the 21st century. The first time was during the financial fiasco at the start of the century and that I refer to as the Great Recession. Little did I know, or anyone else for that matter, what was round the corner.

In the early part of the last century, J.P. Morgan, the American banker, was questioned by a congressional committee about the workings of Wall Street. To the question of whether commercial credit should first and foremost be based on money or property he replied: “No Sir: first thing is character”. In business it is the people behind the logo that count. Professionalism (in every sense of that word), not plush carpets (a useful facade), is what matters.

As business in the financial services industry (including lawyers, bankers and accountants) attempt to stay afloat, new services are being offered to clients. The presumption that they will be delivered with equal quality as the core services on offer are, is something that should not be assumed. We know from past experiences just how disastrous it was for top-tier accounting firms to include consultancy services in conjunction with their basic accountancy operations, and although their sets of accounts might have added up, some of their consultancy skills did not.

Like many words today, the word “expert” has been devalued. If it is a service provider that you are looking for to help you with your international affairs, there are four fundamental values you need to look for: ethics, efficiency, ability and craftsmanship.

Craftsmanship is not a word commonly associated with financial services. I hope it never will be, for fear that its real meaning will be diluted from overuse. There are many craftsmen who stick to their knitting. Look at Faber-Castell pencils with a reputation for quality since 1856; Vincent van Gogh extolled their virtues. This old-fashioned family firm has not moved from its core business – and presumably would never dream of commenting on how Vincent van Gogh drew with its pencils. The firm has stayed within its sphere of confidence and has not strayed into business that it does not understand.

Importantly, you have to realise (and many people do, of course) that competence comes at a cost. Crucially, for those setting up a financial structure it is most important to understand that. Parsimony, as opposed to prudence, can be false economy if the sticking point is fees; if the only difference between two professionals is costs, then who wouldn’t take the lower fees? It seems, however, that often the research does not go beyond comparing fee schedules, which would account for many of the casualties of bad planning out there. These misguided souls I describe as the walking wounded. Sadly, I have met many over the years.

I will never underestimate the power of a personal recommendation from a trusted source, but in its absence, how many times are practitioners asked to provide testimonials? You can read the unsolicited references on our website. By contrast you may well tell the world just how wonderful your service is, but it’s best if someone else voluntarily does it for you.

Now to asparagus and coffee, mentioned at the beginning of INSIGHTS. There is a gardening tip that reveals how to produce perfect asparagus: “first dig a trench three years ago”. Perfection takes time; so does the process to become skilled in a craft. Unfortunately, regardless of quality, there are those jumping over the trench and calling themselves experts. If you doubt this, just consider the sudden number of experts appearing since the pandemic. You can read or watch them almost every day of the week.

Experience, the handmaid of skill, comes from a process of slow filtration: knowledge that is filtered gradually and absorbed by the brain. Do not put the same degree of faith in the instant expert as you might in your instant coffee.