Adieu after 18 years, and many battles and victories

By Bruce Cameron Time of article published Apr 6, 2014

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Last month, 18 years ago, Personal Finance was launched. I had the privilege of being its founding editor and of being able to write a column for the publication nearly every week since then.

This column is the last one I will be writing. Next week I am taking a six-month sabbatical to decide what I want to do with the rest of my life.

Last year, at the age of 65, I retired as editor of Personal Finance, but have continued to write. I have now decided for various reasons, both personal and professional, that it is time to move on.

There is always a time to go and I have decided that time is now.

The past 18 years for me have been challenging. When we launched Personal Finance so many years ago, the main objective was to educate you about your financial wellbeing. Little did I expect that we would become embroiled in the fights we have had with the broader financial services industry in trying to get you a fairer deal.

At times it was virtual warfare as we battled with an industry that, more often than not, put you last. This is not to mention the individuals who simply stole your money.

Although much has improved, there are still significant problems. Here are a couple of examples:

* This week, we report on how life assurance company Momentum has stuck it to pensioners by increasing the risk premiums on its Capital Protector by more than 200 percent (see report below). The company must have either messed up in its original calculations or it cynically provided the product knowing it was going to take advantage of the pensioners at renewal date. This is not treating customers fairly.

* Last week, we published a report on financial services company Riscura and conflicts of interest, which, if not avoided by both retirement fund boards of trustees and Riscura itself, can be to the detriment of retirement fund members.

But much has improved over the past 18 years. And there have been significant legislative and regulatory changes, which have forced improvements in what has often been a recalcitrant financial services industry.

Many services providers, however, have seen the light and realise they must treat you fairly.

For example, this week Personal Finance publishes the second of a series of reports on the Ready, Set, Retire Conference, a joint Alexander Forbes/Personal Finance project.

It was some years ago that we held up Alexander Forbes as the scoundrel of the retirement industry after we caught the company making secret profits out of the bulking of retirement fund bank accounts. The company had to pay back R500 million to the retirement funds.

Since then, Alexander Forbes, particularly under its new chief executive, Edward Kieswetter, has changed to become a company that puts you first.

It is also the company that does the best and most useful retirement funding research, much of which is published in Personal Finance. This research is helping people, without them necessarily knowing it, to retire more financially secure. The research is also being used by National Treasury in its move to fundamentally reform retirement planning to ensure that an ever-increasing number of people do retire financially secure.

Alexander Forbes has shown that culture change is possible.

The longest-running campaign Personal Finance has conducted has been against the confiscatory penalties that life assurance companies levy if you do not keep up your premiums on an endowment policy or contributions on a retirement annuity (RA).

In 2005, you won a partial victory when the then Finance Minister, Trevor Manuel (whom I wish well as he, too, moves to another phase of his life), intervened and reduced the penalties, which were up to 100 percent of your savings, to a still horrendous maximum of 30 percent on RAs and 40 percent on endowments.

On new products sold from January 2009 the penalties were reduced to 15 percent on RAs and 20 percent on endowments, decreasing on a sliding scale.

But despite these signals, the life assurance industry tried every which way to get around these restrictions, down to charging the maximum every time you stopped or reduced payments.

Hopefully, the life assurers got the message last month when government announced its new tax-incentivised savings proposals – the products, to be provided by the private sector, will exclude those with these unacceptable penalties.

Many of the reforms in the financial services industry over the past 18 years have been aimed at getting you a better deal. The key one is going to be the new Treating Customers Fairly regulatory regime.

It has not been an easy 18 years. Personal Finance was subjected to a torrent of threats – from legal threats to occasional physical violence against staff, to say nothing of campaigns to smear us.

Fortunately, it has been very difficult legally to beat up a publication and its staff that have and will continue to have one sole objective – namely, you and your financial wellbeing.

I depart confident that the commitments of the past 18 years will continue under the able editorship of my long-term colleague, Laura du Preez. She is one of many remarkably talented people who have worked for Personal Finance over the past years.

I would like to thank those who have worked for Personal Finance, those many hundreds of honourable people and companies who have assisted us in making sure we inform you properly, and the executives of Independent Newspapers, who supported us even when considerable forces were aligned against us.

My final thanks go to you, our readers, and I wish you well in your quest for financial security.

It has been a challenging and wonderful 18 years.

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