The curious incident of the dog in the night-time (retail funds version)

The Times Money Section on Saturday – last-minute ISA special.  The dates work well this year:  with the tax year not actually ending until Thursday, there’s plenty of time for those stimulated by all this last-minutery to make an investment, either directly or via an intermediary.

So with the market still good, and investor confidence said to be high, there’ll be a lot of fund advertisers making the final push for new business, right?  Well, only if you think that four is a lot - Fidelity, M&G, Legal & General and Invesco Perpetual.

But what’s more interesting than who’s there, if you see what I mean, is who isn’t there.  No Jupiter or New Star.  No Schroders, no Merrill Lynch, no Artemis, no Gartmore.  No boutiques, no insurance companies except L&G, no brokers. It’s all as quiet as anything.

It’s all a case of what Sherlock Holmes called “The curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” (Watson:  “But Holmes, the dog did nothing in the night-time.”  Holmes:  “That, Watson, was the curious incident.”)

What does the lack of activity mean?  Well, there’s always the possibility that it doesn’t mean anything very much – simply that most of the big advertisers have spent most of their budgets and think that 31st March is too late to advertise ISAs to consumers.  But among the more interesting possible explanations, I can think of the following.  Take your pick:

-  Private investors still aren’t interested in fund managers’ propositions, so there’s not much point in spending good money on them;

-  Fund managers still aren’t very interested in private investors, so there’s not much point in spending good money on them;

-  Fund managers have become more and more certain that it’s IFAs who call the shots in this market, not consumers  (to support this view, there are 43 fund ads in this week’s Investment Week);

-  Most people have decided that today’s Personal Finance sections are so boring and of such narrow consumer interest that it’s stupid to advertise in them;

-  Many fund managers are quite bearish about the medium-term market outlook and are holding back for fear of storing up trouble for the future;

-  The FSA have scared most people off with their many and not-always-completely-consistent pronouncements on financial promotions in general and funds advertising in particular;

-  In recent years, some of the minor players have belatedly realised that it’s a complete waste of money to turn up in the consumer marketplace for a few weeks of largely-invisible advertising at the one time of year when the sheer weight of competitive activity guarantees an absolutely minuscule share of voice.

Whatever the reasons (and I suspect it’s a combination of all of the above), it’s a bit of a reality check for those who, like me, thought that although the direct-response-oriented, coupon-clipping era had undoubtedly ended, a new and much more interesting era of real consumer brand-building was already well on the way.  Even if only to get both Conan Doyle and Mark Twain into the same entry, I can’t help concluding that reports of this new era’s existence have been more than somewhat exaggarated.

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