When Barclays Stockbrokers took the wrecking ball to its old sharedealing website, and replaced it with a new build, called Smart Investor, it was inevitable there would be grumbles and complaints. It takes time to get used to change and new builds are notorious for their flaws and faults.
But the issues at Barclays that have led to a torrent of angry emails to our office go much deeper than teething problems and hint at a wider, more worrying issue. This relaunch isn’t a makeover, it’s a whole new proposition – one designed for low-maintenance fund investors.
It’s that which has prompted verdicts of “cumbersome”, “inferior to its predecessor”, “inadequate”, and “unquestionably a downgrade”.
Besides the teething issues, which are serious enough, there are much bigger frustrations for share investors. Critical functionality has been removed. It is now only possible to see five years of transaction history, which will surely create terrible CGT headaches; while overseas shares are no longer supported. ISINs will no longer be displayed – which is a bit like knowing where you are flying to and at what time but not actually having your flight number. The ability to amend a stop-loss has been removed – you must start from scratch each time.
There is deep anger too over the integration of sharedealing accounts with bank accounts, and over the withdrawal of access to partner accounts. It seems perfectly sensible to me that the investor in the family should manage other accounts, but Barclays no longer allows this. And it’s hardly Barclays’ place to suggest as they did to one longstanding customer who has managed a spouse’s investments for three decades (with her full authorisation) “as the account is in her name, it really should be her that's managing it”. And it's not just husbands who manage their wives’ accounts, we’ve had a few women complain they can no longer manage their husbands’ accounts.
Barclays Stockbrokers is a business and one must suppose the changes have been made for its convenience, not its clients’. It admits it wanted “to appeal to a wider audience including at the novice end of the market”.
It’s not hard to see why. Regulatory and cost pressures heaped on traditional stockbrokers in recent years have increased. In the execution-only market, they are competing with stripped back, ultra-low-fee operators while directives and rules, all costing time and money, are being rained down on them from above. The temptation must be to discard models that are costly to support and to shunt your new and old customers into a less costly, more profitable fund-focused platform. It’s the same force that has railroaded investors into pooled nominee accounts, stripping them of valuable rights.
The uncomfortable truth is that investors in the UK are increasingly seen as a burden rather than customers to be served and it's why they get a rough deal – yes technology has brought down the cost of trading, but serious investors also need access to good quality research, essential tools and support and up-to-date, accurate information.
With 200,000 customers, Barclays Stockbrokers is still one of the biggest retail brokers in the UK, although trailing Hargreaves Lansdown (with around 950,000 customers) by some way. For it to let investors down is a big blow. But it’s also an opportunity for rivals to steal that business.
John Hughman is away. Rosie Carr is deputy editor.