And as the FSA sharpens its regulatory stick, there's another man chomping at the bit to clean up the industry, says Elliot Lane
' It's 2005. The industry will have its new year's resolutions. One of them could be, and should be, to pay off its debts.
The words of TS Eliot might sum up the year ahead: "We are the hollow men, we are the stuffed men". In the past 18 months, UK banks have lent upto £500m to regional brokers and consolidators. It is a debt-laden market built on a foundation of sand, namely the hard market can be sustained throughout 2005. But the market is softening rapidly and if the Bank of England decides in its infinite wisdom to continue increasing interest rates, the slim profits the majority of brokers are clinging to like a life raft will puncture and sink.
One leading insurance player described the situation as similar to the 1980s housing boom where estate agents piled into the mortgage market and gambled their futures on the proliferation of profits against a backdrop of low interest rates. "The market will burn as quickly as they did," is his prediction.
Managing the downturn - the valiant sentiment Lloyd's franchise board director Rolf Tolle extolled last year - will be difficult if not impossible. Some brokers are already talking about commercial lines rates dipping because of the number of networks, consolidators and new entrants over-cooking the market.
Next week, the FSA finally takes control of the general insurance industry fully and transparency will be top of its agenda. After the Treasury's audit, the FSA will need to address the cost burden it has piled on to small brokers, but it will probably begin yet another round of consultations on whether the industry should be universally fee-based.
Far from easing off on the industry, the FSA will be encouraged to take an even more proactive role. Why? Because, according to the Westminster rumour mill, one man has a mission to restore the consumer's faith in the industry - John McFall MP. As chairman of the Treasury select committee, and the man who accused FSA chief executive John Tiner of "sleeping on the job" over Equitable Life, he can call up the leading figures in the industry and demand answers over accountability. According to sources, McFall is understood to be preparing to do just that, probably in the first quarter of this year, if the FSA does not come out fighting.
Who would have thought at this time last year, when the industry was focused purely on pleasing the FSA, that New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer would change the whole landscape of the industry? No one. So I have decided to leave the cover over my crystal ball for this year, but the MP for Dumbarton is definitely a man to watch in 2005.