Jeff Prestridge 

It's an Equitable demise

Jeff Prestridge

Jeff Prestridge

By the end of next year, the financial services industry will wave goodbye to Equitable Life.

After what will be 257 long years, the mutual insurer will be no more, absorbed into a company called Reliance Life. Finito. 

Goodbye Equitable Life, although some will probably prefer to say: ‘Good riddance’.

The mutual has probably lasted longer than many commentators expected it to back in late 2000, when it suddenly had to close to new business after a search for a buyer failed in the wake of a £4.4bn hole appearing in its financial accounts. Some thought it was only a matter of time before it went belly up, but it somehow survived.

In recent years, through the energy and no-nonsense approach of chief executive Chris Wiscarson, the society stabilised, in the process handing out generous capital distributions to with profits policyholders in order to get them off the mutual’s books.

It is to Mr Wiscarson’s great credit that a deal has now been secured with Reliance Life, part of Life Company Consolidation Group, which will result in even bigger capital distributions being handed out and a happier end to the Equitable Life story than anyone could have envisaged.

Of all the stories I have covered over the past three decades or so, Equitable Life has probably been one of the most important and emotive.

I joined Fleet Street just as questions started to be raised about the Equitable Life business model.

I then covered it extensively in the wake of its near collapse, as Vanni Treves was brought in to chair the society and policyholders’ investments were savaged to keep the Equitable boat afloat.

I was even entertained for a long while by the goings-on of Charles Thomson, Equitable’s highly paid chief executive who received an array of mouth-watering bonuses, some of which just required him to turn up to work to be eligible for them.

When not working with Mr Treves in helping to stabilise the business, Mr Thomson was busy falling in love with a secretary at Equitable half his age. Stuff fit for a Mills & Boon romantic novel if it had not been for the fact that Mr Thomson was married.

I was also a close observer of the great efforts made by policyholder pressure groups – most notably Equitable Members Action Group – and a close-knit group of MPs to get financial justice for policyholders on the grounds of regulatory failure.

They never relented and in the end they succeeded in getting compensation, although it was never enough. They got £1.5bn from the government when they demanded £4bn.

It is to EMAG’s credit that its pursuit of the remaining £2.5bn goes on despite the announcement of Equitable’s near end. Importantly, this is compensation they seek for those who have long since moved their money away from Equitable.