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Global stock markets were down, but UK stock markets were up in the third quarter. The net effect was that platform assets flatlined with a tiny 0.2% rise to £906bn. The UK economy also flatlined in the third quarter, narrowly avoiding a recession as high interest rates and inflation weighed on consumer confidence and households struggled with living costs. Gross sales were stable at £32.7bn, but uncertainty, lower disposable incomes and the siren call of cash and gilts, resulted in substantial outflows. Net flows plummeted to just £2.3bn — the worst quarterly net sales on Fundscape’s records —resulting in a net-to-gross sales ratio of just 7%. Seven!

With a disappointing ISA season having set the tone for the rest of 2023, the third quarter was always going to be a struggle. But thanks to modest upturns in stock markets, assets crept back over the £300bn mark, regaining a significant milestone for the direct platform market. Flows, however, disappointed with gross flows slumping to below £9bn and net flows dropping to a dismal £1.8bn — not their lowest ever, which was £1.5bn in the last quarter of 2022, but not far off it either.

As the tax-year-end approached, platform activity warmed up and there were high hopes that the momentum would carry through into the second quarter and beyond. Unfortunately, that was not the case. The second quarter of the year spectacularly failed to deliver on the sales front, but stock-market performance gave platform assets a reprieve (and therefore revenues). The FTSE All-World Index was up 3.2% for the quarter, although the FTSE 100 fell by 1.3%. As a result, platform assets were back over the £900bn* mark for the first time since the fourth quarter of 2021 (when we were still feeling optimistic about the future).

It was a difficult first quarter for platforms with the expectation of a recession and the cost-of-living crisis dragging on sentiment and flows. Two Interest rate hikes didn’t help either. Higher interest rates are usually bad for stock markets, but markets appeared to be Teflon-coated in Q1 with the FTSE 100 up 2%, the FTSE All World and S&P 500 up 7%, and the tech-heavy Nasdaq up a whopping 17%. This boosted platform assets to £880bn, although the industry’s £930bn high is still some way off.

2022 was a tough year for platforms and the final quarter of the year was no exception. Investor sentiment has been battered by a seemingly endless succession of bad news including the squeeze on living standards brought on by inflation, higher taxes, energy prices and the war in Ukraine. All this means customers and new flows are hard to come by and business levels are down. Stock market volatility meant most platforms closed the year with lower assets than they started with.

The going got exceptionally tough for the platform industry in the third quarter. The cost-of-living crisis, rampant inflation, the uncertain economic outlook and political instability together had a huge, negative impact on investor confidence. Investors were spooked, abandoned risk in their droves and retreated to the safety of cash.