A strange interaction 

Some of our Members will already know that, between 2012 and 2015, I studied in what I euphemistically describe as my 'spare time' for a Masters Degree in Theology.  On those few occasions where this disclosure has occurred face to face, I frequently see eyebrows crawling up foreheads and whether the question is articulated, or simply considered internally, I know what it is:  Theology?  Why?  When the conversation has occurred over the 'phone, I can actually hear the sound of exertion from forehead muscles, seeking to levitate the eyebrows to a new high point, and I usually regret being the source of such concern.

It is not merely the 'oddness' of Theology as a chosen discipline, that is the problem here.  It is the apparent lack of relation to financial services.  After all, most of us are pursuing all sorts of advanced qualifications which are relevant, for heaven's sake.  Well, for me, running a Network is a kind of never-ending process of research, most of which requires a great deal of technical reading - so the MA was, in comparison, something of light relief, on the basis that a change is as good as a rest.

But, also, and perhaps counter-intuitively, it was relevant.  No, there isn't some obscure book in the Old Testament addressing the topic specifically ('Numbers'?), but there are some key themes which are entirely applicable:

  • The establishment of higher-level, overarching principles - from which the detail of practice may be derived
  • The awareness that ethics are based on something, some set of dependable presuppositions, rather than just evolving out of the blue
  • The need to have some objective basis for sifting data, so that we can reliably establish precedence between different categories of information, and thus make sense of them
  • The fundamental importance of the words on the page, as a basis for determining truth, or reliability
  • The reluctant understanding that human beings are not paragons of virtue, and so we do need a robust compliance process to protect everyone concerned
In brief, it was relevant.  The Masters Degree helped.  In fact, it has significantly improved my critical faculties when it comes to assessing documentation.  Take the following letter, for example:  what do you make of it?
IMG0336We have blanked those details which would breach confidentiality, and to protect the guilty, but what remains is in many respects, fascinating.  I highlight the following points to tease out some of the main principles here:
  • Note the dates of the letter and the original advice - what questions might this raise about the 'discovery' that the client has made?
  • When I tell you that the Firm which provided the advice left ValidPath in 2010, how do you think that this may interact with the nature of the offending transaction (para 1)?
  • If I next tell you that, on ValidPath's databases not only is there no record of this advice ever having been given, but also there is no record of the client - how does that influence your perception of the case?
  • Whilst we cannot be certain, in this case, because there is precisely zero data about it, if I tell you that this ex-Member has 'past form' in putting clients into Drawdown plans which contain toxic investments, such as this one with Stirling Mortimer, how would that idea interact with your perception of the time delay between the Firm leaving ValidPath, and what is apparently a recent discovery by the client?
  • Indeed, for those Members who might keep abreast of such topics, how does one read the client's assertion in para 2?
There's more here to ruminate upon, but the case is all the more intriguing given that the letter of complaint is so minimalist, and tells us so very little.  Never the less, the little text that we have to work with does actually provide a great deal to work with, if one is serious about interacting with the words on the page.  As you may have guessed from this blogpost, we're actually quite relaxed about this kind of case.

Theology is important, not just because of what it tells us about the world we live in, and how we make sense of it.  It also underscores the value and significance of the written or spoken word.  Words matter - how we present ideas (and the suitability of our recommendations) to clients is a skill vital to the professional adviser.
Kevin Moss, 28/04/2017