Anthony Hilton: The forgotten star of the City

When people talk about the place of financial services in the world and the future role of the City, they almost always think about banking. Partly, of course, this is a response to current banking problems and partly it reflects the skill of the investment banks in making people believe that their trading activity is what makes the City tick.

Anthony Hilton: The forgotten star of the City
Anthony Hilton: The forgotten star of the City

What few people realise is that banking is a lot less important than bankers would have us believe. Staking a rival claim for attention are the various financial markets, from shipping through financial futures to metals and the fund management industry. But bigger than any of these and more important than banking in terms of the invisible earnings it brings into the UK is the insurance sector. Yet one would never guess this from the lack of coverage it gets in the financial pages, nor the lack of interest in its activities in Whitehall.

Insurance probably defines the limits of what can be achieved in isolation by PR in the absence of dynamic leadership. Most insurance companies invest heavily in comms and have well staffed departments run by able people, and good external advice. Insurers tend to be good corporate citizens doing more than their share of work in the community, sponsoring high profile events, and backing wider studies in the public interest.

But somehow it does not all quite come together in creating awareness of how important the sector is at the levels at which it matters, in Whitehall, Westminster and the EU. And as a result it is falling victim to regulatory zeal by being lumped with banks as a cause of systemic risk; and continues to be subject to tax policies that create an incentive to move offshore.

Some say this is a fault of trade association the Association of British Insurers because its public pronouncements are often about the savings industry rather than what the public thinks of as insurance - cover for fire, theft, accidental damage and so on. Others say the industry needs a leader with charisma, knowledge and focus. Either way it needs somehow to get across the message that it really matters and needs nurturing. There is not much time left.

Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London's Evening Standard

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