Financial Regulations in Reverse

There is a constant debate between financial services firms and government regulators over financial market regulations – over regulate them or let them run wild and free. If there are no financial regulations in place, you end up with what we have today – a highly unregulated derivatives market. The unregulated derivatives market led to the financial collapse of 2008 and the massive destruction of wealth, yet as of today there are still no guidelines in place to regulate this highly toxic market. On the other end of the spectrum is completing choking the market with financial regulations and deterring business.

In between is that fine line that needs to be in place for markets to be efficient, transparent and trustworthy. In an emerging market like India, the regulators should be first and foremost focused on protecting the consumer. Secondly, in order to attract first time consumers the regulators should be promoting a culture of openness, simplicity and easy to understand language for financial products.

However, over the past 3 months the Indian regulators seem to be going in reverse and making it more difficult for first time consumers to make decisions. They appear to be adding more financial jargon to the process and potentially scaring off first time consumers. For most consumers in India, there are 3 government regulators that have oversight over the bulk of their money:

– IRDA (Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority) – insurance sector
– RBI (Reserve Bank of India) – banking industry
– SEBI (Securities and Exchange Board of India) – oversight of the equity/debt markets

About 3 months back the IRDA essentially shot itself in the foot when it announced new guidelines for websites that aggregate insurance information. Overnight the guidelines killed the business models for insurance aggregators. Personally, if I’m shopping online for insurance I want to be able to compare the various products and understand the pros/cons of the various offerings. However, with the latest IRDA ruling it has banned these websites from providing “opinions” on products or ratings. For first time consumers a rating is such a quick way to decide which product is better. Instead you force the consumer to read through jargon filled insurance material and in the end they will probably not buy anything because its difficult to decipher.

Likewise, SEBI recently introduced new guidelines for the type of information that mutual fund companies can provide in their marketing materials across all mediums – print, TV and web. Specifically, mutual funds companies can no longer provide a rating from someone such as Morningstar, Value Research or S&P. In addition, rankings or testimonials are also off limits. Once again this is moving in the wrong direction, a star rating is easy for someone to understand like a hotel rating – 1 star vs 5 star. Of course, consumers could just goto the websites of Value Research or Morningstar and get the star ratings and rankings themselves.  But, that assumes a first time consumer would know about Value Research or Morningstar which I doubt.

The flip side is that these rankings and ratings were leading some consumers to skip researching these new products altogether. My feeling is if consumers are that stupid to part with their money that easily, then no amount of change in regulations will curb that kind of behavior.



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