The truth about the financial services industry

Published by Donal MacIntyre on 09 December 2010.
Last updated on 10 December 2010

Donal MacIntyre

Don't believe the hype. For most people, the Disney brand represents a cosy, nostalgic place – a kaleidoscope of childhood memories and mellow moments.

For me though, the name only has connotations of pain and disappointment.

That's not because I've been mugged by Mickey Mouse or scared witless by Disney Halloween celebrations. It's because, by accident, I once found myself in the backlot of a Disney resort and got to see the sets from the inside out.

It was 7am and I was an hour into the Disney half marathon in the company of 10,000 other runners. We had to gather at 3am for a 6am start, which in itself was enough to kill the dream. But it was the unexpected toilet break about eight miles in that did it for me.

My bladder was not holding up well, so I snuck in behind a great Toy Story hoarding and saw the nails, paint and bare wood – and Mickey having a fag. Suddenly all the advertising and the fountain of fireworks evaporated: the spell was broken.

Exposing the system

In a similar way, the financial crisis in 2008 extinguished the notion that banks were safe, stalwart institutions that we could depend on no matter what.

Around the same time I was running the Disney half marathon, the then-chancellor, Alistair Darling, received a panicked phone call from an RBS executive informing him that the bank was less than two hours from failing. The cash machines were shortly to seize up, bank doors were about to close and financial Armageddon was imminent.

Suddenly the banking system was exposed and another spell was broken.

Those weeks in 2008 – when the banks crashed and burned, and in some cases were rescued – changed the world. The stability we had taken for granted evaporated and we became suddenly more sceptical. In fear of losing my savings, I found myself spreading the money from a recent house sale among a range of banks to protect it under the Financial Services Compensation Scheme.

As I raced from bank to bank, the RBS advert broadcast earlier that same year seemed very pertinent. Designed before the bank crash to attract new customers, it was part of a series of adverts based on the theme 'Life's too short. You deserve a better bank'.

Changing the game

The advert was set in a tailor's shop as an impossibly handsome man was fitted for a fine suit. He looked every bit the respectful, clean-cut, straight-jawed banking executive – the type you could easily imagine picking up the phone to senior members of the Treasury on a whim.

In reassuring tones, the narrator in the commercial said: "Occasionally a person appears on the scene who will change the way the game is played forever." Certainly, in those fateful two hours in 2008, the RBS executive who, in rather less comforting tones, pleaded: "What are we going to do?" changed the rules forever, albeit in less desirable circumstances.

We can no longer feel comforted by reassuringly expensive adverts. Today we only have one option: we have to look for ourselves behind the scenes; we have to get a backstage pass.

For every financial decision we make, it's now our responsibility to research, canvass opinion and strip away the fantasy. There is no guarantee the state will serve and protect us. We are on our own.

Well, not entirely. You have Moneywise, and we will do our best to give you the keys to the backlot, so that you can see for yourself if the hype stacks up.

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