You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time, Abraham Lincoln once said.
These words always echo in my mind when I think of adviser trade bodies and the people who work for them.
Every now and then, these employees and their organisations come under flack over some issue or other.
The debate nearly always ends with someone asking: are trade bodies still relevant?
The arguments against are well-trodden: they lack any real power, they don’t represent the full adviser spectrum, they don’t offer value for money.
Each of these is open to debate, of course. But I’ll be very clear up front – I believe they do still matter. Could they do some things better? Yes, absolutely. And there’s the caveat.
They may be open to interpretation
This age-old debate was reopened recently by Nic Cicutti, the outspoken and sometimes controversial Money Marketing columnist.
But while some advisers like to dislike Nic, he raised some valuable points. He lashed out at trade bodies for failing to spell out the “kind of fast, aggressive, target regulation the industry needs”.
When I think about it, Nic, who has written about advisers for nearly 30 years, has a point.
Trade bodies are, by their very definition, expert fence-sitters. Their PR communications and reactive comments, often to the frustration of members and journalists alike, are nearly always littered with vague language and expressions that leave their position open to interpretation.
Of course, I’m not naive. Trade body staff must adhere to certain diplomatic protocols, but that should not come at the cost of pushing out a muddled message that could create confusion among members.
Another criticism sometimes levelled at trade bodies is that they sometimes fail to adequately represent all of their membership base, from the very large to the very small. On this point, I have some sympathy with the trade bodies.
On some issues, such as regulatory fees, for example, forming a position that pleases everyone may be relatively straight forward. But on other issues, this may be impossible, given the various shapes and sizes adviser firms come in.
In these circumstances, the very best a representative body can hope for is that they have adopted a position that wins the support of the majority of their membership.
A world without trade bodies?
Finally, from time-to-time, we will hear that the adviser lobby groups have “lost their teeth”; that they no longer have the same clout with the regulator.
Have our representative bodies become less powerful and influential? Maybe, maybe not. That is not something that can easily be measured.
But I’m certain the vast majority of advisers out there would sleep better knowing that their concerns are being voiced with the regulator, no matter how loud that voice may be.
It boils down to one thing: trade bodies are easy to kick and beat with a stick when things don’t go our way.
Of course, there is room for improvement – there always is. But without trade bodies, advisers would have no voice at all. And that is a dangerous place for everyone.