James Daley

By James Daley

The Financial Conduct Authority - and it's predecessor, the Financial Services Authority - have been publishing complaints data for almost five years now. It seems like the kind of thing that a regulator should do. Name and shame the worst offenders - and in doing so, provide some incentive for them to buck their act up.

The problem is, the FCA's complaints data is almost impossible to make any sense of. Its latest batch is out today, and as usual, its press release includes a list of the top five worst offenders in each of its main categories. Surprise, suprise - the biggest banks are the ones with the highest numbers of complaints.

Surely, as a customer who wants to know which companies are best, and which ones to avoid, this kind of data needs to be put in some kind of context. I don't want to know how many complaints Barclays has had in total, I want to know how many complaints it has had per customer.

Five stories the FCA could have focused on

It's never been clear to me why the FCA has not gone this extra step - and forced companies to provide data in a way that's comparable. But even if we give them the benefit of the doubt - and assume that there's a plausible excuse (I can't think of one), why do they continue to put out press releases which encourage people to focus on how bad a job the biggest banks and insurers are doing? Having spent 10 minutes with the numbers, I've found plenty of interesting facts to draw out - which at least provide some interesting insight into new trends in the industry, if not the insight that we might want about the individual brands. Here's five interesting things I picked out from the latest numbers.

  • Complaints about current accounts are up considerably over the past year - an increase of 12% between the first half of 2013 and the first half of 2014.

  • Complaints about mortgages and other secured credit products are up more than 25% over the past year.

  • Complaints about personal pensions are up almost 25% over the past six months (is that linked to the Budget reforms?).

  • Compensation paid out by banks, not relating to PPI, hit a new record of just under £88m in the first half of 2014, an increase of 66% on the levels paid out this time a year ago.

  • The amount of compensation paid out by investment companies more than doubled over the past year to £111m.

All of these seem like interesting stories in their own right - issues which the FCA could be drawing attention to, and providing some commentary around.

Driving the transparency agenda, without providing useful context around what the data means, can do more harm than good. Statistics are easy to misinterpret and often are.