In his opening address before a black-tie audience of 1,500 members and guests this week, the chairman of the Finance & Leasing Association (FLA) struck a bold, defiant and at times a combative style of address that went down well with the captains of asset finance, during a dinner speech at London’s Mayfair.
Richard Jones, the FLA chairman of almost three years, opened his address by recognising members’ efforts of “reaching the new milestone” of £140bn in funding for 2019 across the asset, consumer and motor finance sectors.
Jones said this represented “a modest rise” of 2% on 2018 figures, reflective the of the UK’s “wider economic circumstances.”
In 2019, asset finance grew 6% “to reach a record £35.7bn,” while motor finance, ended the year up 3%, driven by “a 2% uplift in demand for used car finance volumes,” he told members.
In a change of tone, and channelling Churchillian toughness, he said: “£140 billion is a huge amount of support. Our members help the UK grow, buy and borrow.
“We keep the UK moving by financing vehicles of all shapes and sizes. And we fund a vast array of assets to support all parts of the economy, everything from aircraft to hospital theatres, to vital energy infrastructure.”
Jones then turned his attention to the year ahead.
Major political uncertainty, lack of economic clarity and “an intensifying regulatory agenda” were named as key concerns for 2020, that mirrored all too closely the year just gone: “So much has changed, and yet nothing has changed,” Jones said wryly.
Summing up the challenges ahead he said: “Consumer confidence remains fragile, global trade is still under threat from domestically charged policies and now from a potential global pandemic,” referring to the coronavirus. The business press reported this week that the knock-on effect of the virus may cause four of the world’s top carmakers to shut down their European car operations after the Italian authorities closed an electronics factory in Lombardy.
Referring to matters closer to home, and the B-word, Jones said: “UK economic growth remains weak, although as we prepare for life outside the EU, we are in good shape relative to the Eurozone economy.”
The government of Boris Johnson, with a Parliamentary majority of 80 seats, published its White Paper on 27 February setting out Britain’s goals for a trade deal with the EU and, unsurprisingly, financial service providers are likely to find themselves in the crosshairs, especially since the PM declared his intention in January to “take back control” over Britain’s fishing wealth in the English Channel and North-East Atlantic. Something observers say is likely to solicit a tit-for-tat response from Brussels. So watch this space.
With his lobbying hat firmly on, Jones fixed his gaze on regulation in the UK as the key battleground on which the FLA will take up arms.
“The financial services regulatory agenda is intensifying and has become increasingly more interventionist, driven by the FCA, PRA, CMA, and the increased remit of the Financial Ombudsman Service,” he said, referring to the consumer, financial services, banking and competition UK regulators.
Referring to the incoming governor of the Bank of England (Andrew Bailey) and the chief executive to-be at the Financial Conduct Authority, he said: “We hope they will be proportionate in their new roles, not judging their success by the volume of rules written under their tenure.”
Jones also turned his attention to policymakers, urging them to “collaborate more and keep listening to industry as well as other stakeholders, to act on feedback, and above all, to ensure that the regulatory regime they design is proof against unintended consequences.”
The subject of climate change is never far from the lips of industry chiefs these days and Jones was no exception.
With pressure building globally on banks and financiers to withdraw funding from carbon-generating industries, few would have been surprised by the defiant tone Jones took against climate change sceptics.
He described the developments being triggered by a warming planet as “a new driving force of change that will eclipse everything else,” and added: “If you are personally not convinced then I hear that the Flat Earth Society is still taking new members. It’s 12 dollars by the way.”
Just this week the green credentials of banks (and by extension their asset finance subsidiaries and divisions) came under renewed pressure from central bank chiefs Mark Carney (BoE) and Christine Lagarde (ECB), who urged chief executives of UK Plcs to do more to incorporate the Paris Agreements on climate change into their financial decisions.
“Disclosures of climate risk must become comprehensive, climate risk management must be transformed, and investing in a net-zero world must go mainstream,” Carney said on 27 February.
Jones, who when not representing the FLA as chairman, is managing director of motor finance and leasing at the UK’s second-largest bank, Lloyds Banking Group, concluded his speech by producing what sounded like an early Christmas wish-list on behalf of FLA members.
He said members were keen to see improvements to the Consumer Credit Act, which he described as, “too rigid to be the main regulatory regime that underpins the kind of product innovation that could help increase the uptake of low-emission vehicles.”
Asset risk transfer, from consumers to businesses, was also in need of clarity. He said: “The majority of UK transport assets today are financed or leased, often including some form of residual value risk transfer. That’s cars, buses, trains, planes, vans, lorries, taxis, bikes. There is no definitive measure of the total residual value at risk, although it is safe to assume a number above £50bn exists today.”
Returning to the climate change theme, Jones said: “We need to see a government-led investment plan for a zero-carbon economy. That requires much greater investment in infrastructure now to support electrification.
“Now it’s time to start, literally, building a road that can get us there. We need clarity on the road to zero,” he told members and guests, but his words were clearly intended for No.10.
- The event was held at JW Marriot Grosvenor House, London on 25 February 2020.
- The FLA’s charity for the event was DePaul UK.