Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Writing clearly when the lawyers are all over you

Yes. It's gripe time. Ever worked in financial services as a communicator? If you answered 'yes', you're most likely wrong. No one that I know has ever worked in financial services and been a communicator in the literal sense of the word. If you answered 'no', then I believe you have worked in financial services in a communications role and fully comprehend where I'm coming from.

For those not in Australia, we have this thing here called the Financial Services Reform Act, enacted in 2004 and the bain of communicators working in the sector ever since. It has set up a failed framework of disclosure aimed at helping consumers avoid dodgy financial services companies and people by insisting industry participants describe absolutely every technical aspect of the business. Some of the 'disclosure' is prescribed. For example, a rigid fee disclosure framework that doesn't fit many products and providers in the industry. Terms like 'Indirect Cost Ratios' are prescribed, where previously we generally used the term "Investment Fees", which at least gave some punters a rough guide to what we were talking about.

How did this happen? Essentially, it's all about regulation gone mad and, while Australia may have fared better than most in the GFC, I would argue the use of impenetrable disclosure did not contribute to that. This is because the disclosure regime was not designed to help consumers understand what they were buying, but rather as a risk management tool to protect politicians and regulators from the fallout from the collapse of financial institutions and dealer groups. The pollies or regulators can simply point to the disclosure documents and say that (a) the consumer should have known or (b) the disclosure documents were non-compliant. The latter is the least-preferred excuse because it suggests that the dodgy dealer's documents should have been better monitored by the appropriate regulator.

Laughably, the overriding consideration in the production of these documents is that they should be 'clear, concise and effective'. Who to? A lawyer or actuary? I stand to be corrected, but I have not yet seen one of these documents that would have got through the sub-editor's desk in my newspaper days.

So go back to my initial question: Who works as a communicator in financial services?

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