One of the luxuries of being independent is that you can take your time to think about the stories of the day before posting. So it’s in that spirit that I’ve been chewing over the new inflow figures from the always insightful Platforum and their thoughts on why growth is flatlining (that isn’t to say that AUA is flat; just that the rate of growth is).

At the same time as these less than yeasty numbers, the sector has had some welcome news in terms of business health. CoFunds have posted a healthy profit and Novia have leveraged their groundbreaking joint venture with Aegon to move into profitability.

Transact has smashed the £10bn barrier, and Ascentric & Nucleus are at the £3bn mark, with the latter bearing down on profitability with all the inevitability of the lang cat bearing down on a fine 21 year old malt. We’re seeing news from a couple of new wealth management entrants and a couple of the slower insurers are getting themselves together – Aegon and Aviva in particular.

So we shouldn’t be too downhearted in platform land. Or should we? The news from the giants is not so healthy, as I’ve written about before. Large amounts of capital are being burnt and while the commitment debate feels a bit old hat it’s fervently to be hoped that none of the providers of that capital call time.

For what it’s worth, I think this is a sticky but fascinating point in the market’s evolution. Platform usage is now close to endemic – surveys vary but from 2/3rds to 85% of IFAs are using them.  Amongst users it’s probably fair to say that vast majority of investment and pensions business is going onto the primary or secondary platform. So has the market just capped out?

I don’t think so. There remain large value pools to unlock in IFA client banks that could well be suitable for a platform. I suspect that there are two main factors driving these numbers.

  • IFA franchise – no IFA likes to admit this, but there are clients in every bank who are less readily influenced by the views of their adviser. Affluence is no indicator of this. So those clients who have a more independent view will naturally be harder to convince of the benefits of a move to platforms. And the cynicism from the consumer press (mainly on cost grounds) will not inspire action in clients who do their own Internet research. Assuming IFAs have naturally focussed on clients with whom they have a stronger relationship first, a slowing in inflow is not surprising. This has been referred to, inelegantly, in the trades as ‘the low hanging fruit’ having been moved. Can I move that we never refer to clients as low hanging fruit again? They can read the newswires as well as we can and it doesn’t inspire confidence.
  • Linked to point one is the fact that no platform except Hargreaves Lansdown has cracked the value of its platform proposition to clients yet. Providers are hiding behind the adviser relationship as an excuse not to really dig into what clients value and market the hell out of it. No one is doing a category job on platforms with the public. And for those clients who need more decision support it’s no surprise that they don’t see the benefits.  I suspect the big composite lifecos will have to put their hands up for this – and while they have packaged product business to sell that may be a tough ask.

So as so often the key to unlocking the next phase of this market’s potential is to relocate our centre of gravity to the client and spend a little less time perusing our navels in terms of who has the best widget or dongle. Internet banking took off when people understood the benefits of having control. Platforms can do the same.

The lang cat has some ideas on how this could be done – a shameless plug but any providers or advisers wanting to spend a bit of time on client-centric development should get in touch.