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Finance and Insurance Market: Underwriting Fees

Volume 723: debated on Wednesday 12 January 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the level of underwriting fees in the United Kingdom finance and insurance market.

My Lords, the Office of Fair Trading is currently undertaking analysis of the way the underwriting market works and assessing whether there is potential for improving the way it functions. The report will consider how underwriting services are purchased, how underwriting services are provided and how the regulatory environment affects the provision of these services. The report is intended to be published later this month. The Government await with interest the findings of the report.

My Lords, given that City underwriters have in recent years pocketed some £2.5 billion through raised insurance claims without paying out once, not even on the capital-raising bids from RBS and Bradford & Bingley, does the Minister accept that those who lose out are the British shareholder, investor, saver and taxpayer? In light of this, will HMG undertake to implement in full Douglas Ferrans’s report on this subject to increase confidence in the industry, transparency and competition, and bring greater and strengthened rights to shareholders?

My Lords, call me old fashioned if you like but it is probably better if I stay off the substance of matters that are the subject of inquiries by the competition authorities at the moment. I have certainly studied the Ferrans report and I note that he and his team worked closely with the OFT. It will clearly be an important input to the OFT’s studies.

My Lords, we are fortunate that the Minister is here to answer this Question. He was, of course, an investment banker before he became Gordon Brown’s City ambassador. The Ferrans report, to which he refers, highlights several agency failures, which end up costing UK companies much more to raise capital and end up incurring far larger costs for UK investors, pension funds and insurance companies. I encourage the noble Lord to agree to meet Mr Ferrans and those who authored this excellent report.

My Lords, I am happy to acknowledge that the noble Lord also has a distinguished history in this area. As well as being a fund manager, he wrote a report for the DTI in February 2005, so there are lots of poachers turned gamekeepers out there in the jungle. We should wait to see what the OFT recommends. It can recommend a range of actions, which could include matters coming back to government. I and my colleagues in government would then follow them up in the appropriate way.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Ferrans report is yet another demonstration of the fact that if bankers are left to their own devices they behave in an uncompetitive way? While certain aspects of the report are being considered and are relevant to the OFT, it makes a number of suggestions about how some EU financial services directives could be strengthened to improve the sector and its competitiveness. Will the Minister give an undertaking that before the OFT reports, and in its ongoing discussions in Brussels, it will take forward the proposals in the Ferrans report to ensure that transparency and competition are promoted?

My Lords, as I have already said, it is expected that the Office of Fair Trading will report later this month, so we do not have long to wait. We should consider what the appropriate action is to take after my ministerial colleagues have had a chance to consider the recommendations of the OFT report. However, I hear what my noble friend says.

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister is aware that when I was deputy chairman of the Competition Commission I conducted an inquiry into precisely this issue. This marketplace is notoriously uncompetitive and it is only as a result of constant vigilance that we can keep everyone on the straight and narrow in this area. I hope very much that the Minister will agree with me that the Competition Commission is possibly the best place to resolve these issues and that it will do so—

I have asked a question. Does the Minister agree with me that it will do so by the best possible method; that is, by conducting the inquiry with a panel of peers?

My Lords, I am obviously interested to hear from the noble Baroness who has great experience in these matters. However, as she well knows, a range of outcomes could emerge from the OFT market study. Those could include enforcement action taken by the OFT through a market investigation reference to the Competition Commission, recommendations to government to change law or regulation, voluntary action by industry players or, indeed, a clean bill of health. We should wait to see what the OFT recommends.

My Lords, is not the truth of the matter that the complete failure of the Government to persuade the banks to lend has forced companies into increasing rights issues and that the banks have used corporate desperation as a lever to charge higher underwriting fees even when market conditions have improved? Does the Minister agree that this is prima facie evidence of an underwriting cartel? Does he regard this as a legitimate way for banks to repair their balance sheets?

My Lords, first of all, I do not accept for one moment the premise about government action in some way preventing companies borrowing from the banks, because, as we discussed at some length yesterday, the Government are taking a considerable amount of action to make sure that the banks lend and increase the amount of lending over what they would otherwise have done. As to the noble Lord’s questions about the underwriting market, again I would wait until the OFT has come up with its report within the next few weeks.