Dixon BainbridgeIf you love what you do, and you do it well, does it really matter what others think of you? Dixon thinks not – even if they wield a mean Zimmer frame.

So in Germany recently, a bunch of pensioners kidnapped and tortured their financial planner because they lost some money. This raises a number of interesting questions – not least of which is, since when was a financial planner unable to out-run a gang of geriatrics with Zimmer frames and artificial hips?

Also, what kind of kidnap plan comes undone when the captive is allowed to send a “coded” fax to the outside world?

This story emerged around about the same time I was thinking hard about the public perception of financial planners.

And what got me thinking about that was an advertisement on the back of a bus for the new Sasha Baron Cohen movie, “Bruno”. The advertising got me thinking: What a way to make a living! There he was, advertising his new movie on the back of a bus, with his airbrushed arse hanging out of a tiny pair of yellow shorts.

What level of financial success and creative freedom is worth that, I wondered? (Mind you, it was positively conservative compared to Borat’s mankini.) It reminded me of Jerry Seinfeld’s ambivalence about being a professional footballer: On the one hand, he says, you’re a multi-millionaire; on the other hand, someone blows a whistle and you have to chase a ball.

And then an item published online by Crikey. com.au made me realise that financial planners already endure a significant amount of humiliation for the sake of doing what we love. And it doesn’t take a posse of pissed-off pensioners to make that point.

Crikey published a poll in early June that listed a range of occupations, plus ratings of those occupations by the public, based on perceptions of ethics and honesty. Not surprisingly, top of the list were nurses, pharmacists and doctors. Equally unsurprisingly, just above car salesmen and advertising people, came journalists – a finding promptly brought to the attention of the editor of this publication. [Yes, thanks for that – Ed.]

This poll was interesting, because it tracked the standings of the different occupations over time. Nurses, doctors and pharmacists have been consistently top-ranked occupations. Journalists have been consistently ranked lowly. [We get the point – Ed.] Financial planners appeared in the survey for the first time. That’s good and bad.

It’s good, because at least the occupation is sufficiently well recognised to now be included on a list of occupations that people can be asked to rate. But it’s bad, because the occupation’s ranking was, well, not high. Only 25 per cent of people who were polled rated it “high” or “very high” for ethics and honesty.

It ranked 16th out of 30 occupations. Still it’s better than journalism. [Right. That’s your last warning – Ed.] Being a financial planner is an intensely rewarding occupation. It’s as rewarding as Cohen finds acting; it’s as rewarding as any professional footballer finds playing his (or her) chosen code. It must be – otherwise, why endure the seemingly endless public opprobrium attached to doing it?

It’s because we know that what financial planners do is valuable. Planners see how the advice they’ve given has changed people’s lives. Planners know they add value, and that they occupy a position of great trust in people’s lives; so it’s galling to see surveys repeatedly ranking the profession relatively lowly. Financial planners play an important role.

There’s always been – and always will be – a few idiots who get it wrong, through incompetence or outright fraud, and wreck it for everyone. And so when there’s a problem in the system, it’s always the planner who cops it in the neck. I am heartily sick of it. By all means, reform how planners get paid.

By all means, eliminate product commissions from superannuation funds, or whatever other action is needed to keep the regulators the hell out of it. But when that’s done, and the next half-arsed investment scheme collapses, or when the next crooked planner takes a client to the cleaners, what then?

When the media can’t point the finger at product commissions as the root cause of every industry evil, maybe the focus will shift to other links in the chain that deserve some greater scrutiny: dealer groups, researchers and the product manufacturers themselves. It’s going to be a long haul, and there may be some pain, but this, too, shall pass.

And in any case, next time someone starts banging on about how financial planners are glorified salespeople and how they’re untrustworthy and only recommend products that pay a pile of commission, always remember that it could be worse. You could be a jour- [You were warned – Ed]

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