With all advisers now using platforms and around half using them every day, platforms have in many ways become the lifeblood of retail financial services. From fund supermarkets to wraps, from adviser-led to execution-only, from independent to insurer-owned and from traditional outfits to those offering DFM and robo-advice propositions, the platform universe is as varied as it is vast.
The platform market has undergone significant evolution over recent years and this will no doubt continue. The Financial Advice Market Review’s call for automated, cost-effective solutions to help close the advice gap will likely see more tech-driven platforms offering robo-advice and direct to consumer propositions come to market.
But the pressure on margins, the increasing complexity of regulatory compliance together with the threat posed by Fintech and digital disruption are all making it harder for platforms to achieve profitability and scale. Platforms may be increasing AUM but a race to the bottom amid frenzied competition means some will need to adopt more disciplined pricing structures to hit profitability. And with banks and fund managers also looking to enter the space, the search for scale will become that much harder.
Amid such stiff competition, it has become even more important for platforms to generate high levels of satisfaction among advisers in terms of service, functionality, product range and reporting capability. These satisfaction drivers will be key in determining the winners and losers.
The industry is therefore at a critical juncture. Recent acquisition activity, along with the wider ‘asset grab’ trend, suggests the market could be about to undergo a period of prolonged consolidation and change. New market fundamentals and regulatory realities mean it will likely be a situation of survival — or evolution — of the fittest in the platform ecosystem.
In contrast to the crowded platform market, there are just a handful of dominant technology providers powering these platforms and it will be interesting to see if more players enter the fray and inject some additional competition.
The jury is out on what the future platform market will look like, but the pace of platform evolution will be greatly influenced by regulation. From the RDR in January 2013 to the banning of cash rebates in April 2014 to the platform trail commission switch-off in April 2016, the sector has seen its fair share of regulation over recent years. If platforms are to evolve and modernise they will perhaps need to operate within a looser regulatory regime which encourages innovation and experimentation.
Relieving platforms of some of the more time-consuming administrative and compliance burdens will allow them to operate more freely.
We will no doubt see some players exit, others merge and new players enter the arena over the next few years. Traditional platform business models may become outdated. On the one hand, the drive for efficiency will probably see more vertically-integrated platforms belonging to firms offering multiple products and services. On the other hand, the sector will likely witness the emergence of smaller, nimbler tech players focusing on more targeted areas such as the equity or brokerage space.
Meanwhile, platforms stand to continue to benefit from pension freedoms and new products coming to market such as the Lifetime Isa. But the accompanying injection of fresh cash into the system will also pose administrative and customer service challenges requiring platforms to have robust systems and infrastructures in place.
Elsewhere, the recent UK vote to leave the EU will likely have some impact on the financial services industry and by extension the platform sector. In particular, the uncertainty and volatility that has gripped markets in the wake of the vote could scupper or delay the anticipated wave of platform consolidation. Deal-making across all industries froze in the run up to the EU referendum and the decision to leave could further impact acquisition activity.
Equally, the increased pressures placed on platforms from the ongoing uncertainty around post-Brexit regulation and volatility in the currency and stock markets could prompt a search for buyers and therefore boost m&a activity.
However, it will play out, platforms have proved adept over recent years at adapting to constant changes in the market — be it regulatory pressures or new economic fundamentals — and will no doubt look to weather any post-Brexit storms with similar resolve.
Whatever the future holds, platforms will continue to be a key component of the investment universe. These tech firms are at the forefront of the drive toward transparency, regulatory compliance and the digitalisation and democratization of financial services. They have expanded well beyond their original administrative functions into new areas and services and are now very different beasts altogether. But further evolution is required and platforms must not stand still. They will need to embrace — rather than succumb to — digital disruption and adapt to a new investment world in which Fintech will play an ever-increasing role.