Federal Court declares Melbourne licensee breached FOFA laws

For the first time we get a read on how the Future of Financial Advice (FOFA) reforms will be interpreted by the courts.

ASIC says the Federal Court has found that Melbourne-based financial advice firm NSG Services Pty Ltd (formerly National Sterling Group Pty Ltd) (NSG) breached the best interests obligations of the Corporations Act introduced under the Future of Financial Advice (FOFA) reforms.

This is the first finding of liability against a licensee for a breach of the FOFA reforms.

This matter relates to financial advice provided by NSG advisers on eight specific occasions between July 2013 and August 2015. On these occasions, clients were sold insurance and/or advised to rollover superannuation accounts that committed them to costly, unsuitable, and unnecessary financial arrangements.

NSG consented to the making of declarations against it and after a hearing on 30 March 2017 the Court was satisfied that declarations ought to be made.

The Court found that NSG’s representatives:

  • breached s 961B of the Corporations Act by failing to take reasonable steps to ensure that they provided advice that complied with the best interests obligations; and
  • breached s 961G of the Corporations Act by failing to take reasonable steps to ensure that they provided advice that was appropriate to its clients.

Those breaches amounted to a contravention by NSG of s 961L of the Corporations Act, which provides that a financial services licensee must ensure its representatives are compliant with the above sections of the Act.

The Court made the declarations based on the following deficiencies in NSG’s processes and procedures:

  • NSG’s new client advice process was insufficient to ensure that all necessary information was obtained from, and given to, the client;
  • NSG’s training on legal and regulatory obligations was insufficient to ensure clients received advice which was in their best interests;
  • NSG did not routinely monitor its representatives nor identify deficiencies in the knowledge or skills of individual representatives;
  • NSG did not conduct regular or substantive performance reviews of its representatives;
  • NSG’s compliance policies were inadequate, and did not address its representatives’ legal or regulatory duties, and in any event, were not followed or enforced by NSG;
  • there was an absence of  regular internal audits, and the external audits conducted identified issues which were not adequately addressed nor recommended changes implemented; and
  • NSG had a “commission only” remuneration model, which meant that representatives would only be compensated by way of commission for sales of life insurance products and superannuation rollovers.

ASIC Deputy Chairman Peter Kell said, “This finding, the first of its kind, provides guidance to the industry about what is required of licensees to ensure representatives comply with their obligations to act in the best interests of clients and provide advice that is appropriate”.

ASIC has sought orders that NSG pay pecuniary penalties in relation to the declarations made. A date for the hearing on penalty will be fixed by the Court.

Background

On 3 June 2016, ASIC commenced proceedings against NSG in the Federal Court (refer: 16-187MR).

Separately ASIC announced:

ASIC has banned Mr Adrian Chenh and Mr Bill El-Helou from providing financial services for a period of five years each following an ASIC investigation.

ASIC’s investigation found that Mr Chenh and Mr El-Helou provided advice to clients that was in breach of the best interests duty introduced under the Future of Financial Advice (FOFA) reforms.

ASIC found that Mr Chenh and Mr El-Helou had:

  • failed to act in the best interests of clients in that the advice provided did not leave them in a better position;
  • failed to provide advice that was appropriate to the clients; and
  • failed to provide financial services guides, product disclosure statements and statements of advice.

An additional finding was made that Mr El-Helou was not adequately trained, or not competent, to provide financial services.

ASIC deputy Chairman Peter Kell said, ‘Financial advisers must act in the best interests of their clients and provide advice that is appropriate. ASIC is committed to raising standards in the financial advice industry.’

Mr Chenh and Mr El-Helou both have a right to appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal for a review of ASIC’s decisions. Mr Chenh has exercised his right of appeal and filed an application for review on 21 March 2017.

Background

ASIC has commenced proceedings against NSG Services Pty Ltd (formerly National Sterling Group Pty Ltd) (NSG) for breaches of the “best interests obligations” contained in the Corporations Act, and is seeking declarations of breaches and financial penalties (refer: 16-187MR).  A hearing on liability occurred on 30 March 2017.

Both Mr Chenh and Mr El-Helou, previously representatives at NSG, gave financial product advice, particularly in relation to superannuation and insurance.

ASIC acts against alleged contraventions of FoFA obligations

ASIC says it has commenced proceedings in the Federal Court of Australia against Wealth and Risk Management Pty Ltd (WRM), and related companies Yes FP Pty Ltd (Yes FP) and Jeca Pty Ltd (trading as Yes FS) (Yes FS), in relation to various alleged breaches of the Corporations Act 2001 and the Australian Securities and Investments Commission Act 2001, including alleged breaches of best interests obligations. ASIC is seeking injunctive relief, declarations of contraventions and financial penalties.

 

WRM is licensed to advise retail clients about, and deal in, life risk insurance and superannuation products. WRM authorises advisers, generally employed by WRM’s corporate authorised representative Yes FP, who provide personal financial advice to retail clients referred to them by Yes FS, via the website yesfs.com.au.

ASIC alleges that:

  • on numerous occasions since December 2015, WRM Advisers have provided advice that is conflicted and in breach of the best interests obligations contained in the Corporations Act;
  • WRM has breached s912A(1) of the Corporations Act by not:
    • doing all things necessary to ensure that the financial services covered by its licence are provided efficiently, honestly and fairly; and
    • has not taken reasonable steps to ensure that its representatives comply with financial services laws;
  • Yes FS has contravened s911A and/or s911B of the Corporations Act by carrying on a financial services business without holding an AFSL;
  • Yes FS has contravened s1041H of the Corporations Act 2001 and s12DA of the ASIC Act by engaging in misleading and deceptive conduct; and
  • WRM, Yes FS and Yes FP contravened s12CB of the ASIC Act by engaging in unconscionable conduct in connection with the supply or possible supply of financial services.

The first hearing of the matter is listed before the Federal Court of Australia at 9:30am on 31 March 2017.

Background

Part 7.7A of the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) was enacted as part of the “Future of Financial Advice” (FoFA) reforms which are aimed at ensuring that financial advice companies and their advisers act in the best interests of the client. ASIC alleges in this case that WRM has breached s961L of the Corporations Act.

Regulatory Guide 175Licensing: Financial product advisers – conduct and disclosure provides guidance to help licensees understand ASIC’s expectations for meeting the best interests duty, and to ensure that it is consistent with ASIC’s guidance in Regulatory Guide 244Giving information, general advice and scaled advice.

Section 912A of the Corporations Act 2001 sets out the general obligations of Australian Financial Services Licensees.

Section 911A of the Corporations Act 2001 requires any person carrying on a financial services business in Australia and providing financial product advice to hold an AFS licence or be a representative of an AFS licensee.  ASIC contends that the conduct that is the subject of this action required Yes FS to have an AFS licence or be an authorised representative of an AFS licensee.

House passes professional standards bill

From The Financial Standard.

Federal laws which will affect the future of the financial planning industry passed the House of Representatives last night.

The Corporations Amendment (Professional Standards of Financial Advisers) Bill, which was first introduced into Parliament in November 2016 by the Coalition, passed the House on the first sitting day of 2017.

Minister for Revenue and Financial Services Kelly O’Dwyer said the Bill comes in response to the actions of a minority of rogue financial advisers.

“Over time, repeated instances of inappropriate advice have led to a reduction in consumers’ trust in the financial advice industry,” O’Dwyer said during a reading of the Bill.

“Reduced trust acts as a barrier to consumers seeking financial advice, which is a poor outcome for both consumers and the industry.”

O’Dwyer recognised the majority of financial advisers have provided high-quality advice to their clients, adding that the measures debated will help to rebuild confidence in the industry.

Under the legislation, financial advisers will be required to hold a degree or a qualification equivalent to a degree, complete a professional year, pass an exam, and undertake continuous professional development.

A single uniform code of ethics will also set the ethical principles that advisers must comply with.

O’Dwyer hopes that the passing of the Bill means that more Australians will have the confidence to seek financial advice, noting that currently only one in five seek advice.

The new professional standards regime will commence on 1 January 2019, following successful passage through the Senate.

Labor’s last minute amendment

Prior to passing the House, Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh called on the government to apologise to victims of bad financial practice following their vote against Labor’s proposed financial advice measures.

“The house calls on current Liberal and National Party parliamentarians to apologise for the disregard their colleagues in the 43rd parliament showed for the many victims of bad practice in the financial advice sector when they voted against Labor’s Future of Financial Advice measures,” Leigh’s proposed amendment stated.

Leigh offered three additional amendments, drawing attention to the lack of trust consumers have in the financial services industry.

Speaking to Financial Standard this morning, head of policy and government relations for the FPA Benjamin Marshan said that while he feels positive about how the Bill passed the house, he is disappointed with Labor’s response, given that the industry is desperately seeking certainty.

“The amendments that the ALP proposed were trying to play games and show up the Government,” Marshan said.

“It’s disappointing that given that financial planners have been looking for certainty. Consumers are looking for increased trust and passing the Bill through unanimously shows that the ALP didn’t have any philosophical issues with the Bill.”

Marshan added that the FPA is looking forward to the Bill passing quickly through the Senate on Thursday.

“We’re encouraged by the commitment that the government is showing to the industry,” he said.

Labor’s amendment was defeated 75-68.

ABA Rejects View That Bank Wealth Advisors Sidestep FOFA

The Australian Bankers’ Association has today strongly rejected the claim by Industry Super Australia that banks ‘sidestep’ Future of Financial Advice protections when advising customers on superannuation.

Investment-Pic2They were reacting to strong claims made today by ISA:

The big four banks have been luring people away from industry super funds and into poorer performing super products, an industry super advocacy group claims.

Industry Super Australia says there has been a significant increase in people signing up to bank-owned super funds as the major banks ramp up their over-the-counter superannuation sales advice.

Industry Super’s chief executive David Whiteley says the banks’ super products typically delivered lower investment returns than industry super funds.

“There’s a real risk now of people walking into a bank and ending up as a member of a super fund that is worse than the fund they were already a member of,” he told AAP on Tuesday.

“The implication for the consumer is that they’ll retire with less, or they may have to work longer, or they will become more reliant on the aged pension.”

Mr Whiteley said the group’s analysis of data from Roy Morgan Research found that the big four banks had doubled their over-the-counter super sales advice between 2011 and 2015.

“The figures show direct advice is growing quickly and at the expense of traditional channels including financial advisers,” he said.

The research also found that customers were being switched from funds with higher net satisfaction and performance into funds with lower satisfaction and performance, he said.

And, unlike financial advisers, bank staff, who are often given incentives to sell the super products, don’t have to meet best interest obligations, he said.

“General advice direct from a bank does not need to meet the best interest obligations and it is likely the banks are using this and linked sales incentives to funnel customers into underperforming funds.”

Industry Super Australia wants banks to be required to perform a better-off test to demonstrate a customer would not be worse off if they switched funds.

It also wants a ban on all sales incentives relating to superannuation.

ABA responds:

“It is ridiculous to claim that the increase in major banks’ superannuation market share points to ‘obvious market failure’,” ABA Executive Director – Retail Policy Diane Tate said.

“Banks have made significant investment to change their practices and systems to comply with the Future of Financial Advice laws, banning conflicted remuneration and introducing a best interest duty,” she said.

“We also support new legislation to raise education, ethical and professional standards for all financial advisers.”

Ms Tate said customers want a one-stop-shop for their basic banking and financial services.

“Banks are using technology to make sure their customers have the convenience of being able to access all their products and services in one place, like using their smartphone, and with the confidence their money is secure.

“Banks have raised the competency and ethical standards of financial advisers. For example, just last month the industry announced a new way of hiring financial advisers to stop advisers with poor conduct records moving around the industry.

“We have also established an independent review into how banks pay staff and reward them for selling products and services,” she said.

“Industry super funds are competitors with banks. If only this was a campaign about doing the right thing by customers; but really it is just a competitive play,” Ms Tate said.

ASIC takes first action against licensee for alleged breaches of FOFA ‘best interests duty’

ASIC has said it has commenced proceedings against Melbourne-based NSG Services Pty Ltd (formerly National Sterling Group Pty Ltd) (NSG) for breaches of the ‘best interests duty’ introduced under the ‘Future of Financial Advice’ (FOFA) reforms.

This is the first civil penalty action ASIC has taken against a licensee alleging breaches of the best interests duty and is seeking declarations of breaches and financial penalties.

Since 3 April 2008, NSG has been licensed to provide personal advice on risk insurance and superannuation products to retail clients. NSG employs advisers to provide financial services advice on its behalf as its representatives and authorised representatives (NSG advisers).

ASIC alleges that:

  • NSG failed to take reasonable steps to ensure that its advisers complied with the best interests obligation when providing advice to clients; and
  • as a result, on numerous occasions, NSG advisers did not act in the best interests of their clients.

In addition, ASIC alleges that:

  • NSG has not provided appropriate training to its advisers to ensure clients receive advice in their best interests. Instead, ASIC contends that NSG has trained its advisers that it is almost always in a client’s best interest to take out some form of life risk insurance, regardless of a client’s financial situation;
  • NSG’s written policies relating to legal and regulatory compliance and risk management have been inadequate, and in any event, not followed or enforced;
  • since 1 July 2013, on eight specific occasions, and because of advice provided by NSG advisers, clients were sold insurance and/or advised to rollover superannuation accounts that committed them to costly, unsuitable, and unnecessary financial arrangements; and
  • regular and or substantive performance reviews of advisers have not been conducted, and disciplinary action against advisers who do not act in compliance with their obligations under the Corporations Act has not been taken.

Life Insurance Remuneration Reform Regulations

The Government has released draft regulations that will support the Government’s life insurance reform package to better align the interests of financial firms with consumers.

Remuneration relating to life insurance advice provided outside of superannuation was excluded from the ban on conflicted remuneration (remuneration likely to influence advice) introduced under the Future of Financial Advice (FOFA) laws.

A series of reports, including a review the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC), the industry-commissioned Trowbridge Report and the Financial System Inquiry (FSI), identified the need to better align the interests of providers of financial advice in the life insurance sector with consumer outcomes. As part of its response to the FSI, the Government announced that it would support a reform package put forward by industry.

The reform package introduced by the Life Act removes the exemption from the ban on conflicted remuneration, and introduces caps under which commissions will be permitted to be paid, as well as arrangements to ‘clawback’ commissions where policies lapse in the first two years. The reforms will commence on 1 July 2016.

The Regulation supports the reform package introduced by the Life Act by:

  1. allowing the temporary inclusion of stamp duty relating to death benefits to be included in commission calculations while industry update its information technology systems;
  2. prescribing circumstances where ‘clawback’ does not apply, such as in situations where a policy is cancelled automatically due to the age of the insured or where a premium rebate is offered to encourage customers to take up a policy; and
  3. ensuring that existing life insurance remuneration arrangements are grandfathered in a manner broadly consistent with FOFA by ensuring that remuneration arrangements not effectively grandfathered by the Life Act
    (i.e. employee-employer remuneration arrangements) are explicitly grandfathered in the Regulation. Grandfathering means that the existing rules continue to apply to existing arrangements, while new rules apply to new arrangements.

Closing date for submissions: Thursday, 28 April 2016

Time To Fix Financial Planning Properly

There will, no doubt, be more calls for a Royal Commission into the impact of poor advice provided by financial planners, following the reports of mis-advice at the NAB, which follows on from CBA, and a long list of other firms.

It is clear that there has been significant poor advice provided by some, perhaps influenced by target chasing, commissions, personal gain or errors. Many who received such poor advice will probably be unaware, and simply observe their portfolios are not performing as they expected. On the other hand, poor performance does not necessarily mean poor advice, it could be simply market dynamics, because most investments are inherently risky. That said, it is therefore hard to get a good read on how many people are impacted, but my guess it is into the many thousands, many of these victims do not have deep pockets so cannot fight back.

The superannuation balances of Australians now stand at more than $1.93 trillion so more households will need advice going forward. Much of that could still be conflicted in the current industry structures. Conflicted advice is right in the middle of the current industry problems, and whilst there are many excellent advisors doing the right think by their clients, the reputation of the entire industry is being trashed.

Despite the FOFA reforms (which has been subject to various government attempted revisions) we think that there is still room for significant improvement in the regulatory framework, practice and culture relating to providing good financial advice in Australia, with a focus on doing the right thing for clients. The claim that “its just a few bad apples” becomes less credible as more organisations are implicated. Both ASIC and the recent FSI report highlighted significant structural problems.

We think that the concept of general advice should be removed, and advisors should not be able to receive any indirect financial benefit from the advice they provide.

Separately, financial products can be sold, provided all relevant facts, and costs are disclosed. The two – advice and product sales, should be separated completely. You can read my earlier discussions here. Any link between the two creates conflict and the risk of poor advice.

So, first we need to fix up the industry going forwards. Personally, I think the architecture of a solution is pretty clear, if unpopular from a market participants perspective. Next we need a mechanism to identify people who have received wrong advice, so it can be rectified. That of course is a complex process, and again will be resisted by the industry.

We do not need another couple of years of inactivity whilst yet more inquiries rake over the coals some more. Rather it is time for action.

NAB Financial Advisors Under The Microscope

According to the Sydney Morning Herald,

“The National Australia Bank has quietly paid millions of dollars in compensation to hundreds of clients given what it considers inappropriate financial planning advice since 2009.

The bank is the latest institution to face disturbing revelations of misconduct in its financial planning division, with a Fairfax Media investigation uncovering instances of forgery, “rogue advisers” and multiple sackings inside its financial advice arm.

A cache of confidential internal documents obtained by Fairfax Media reveals that, according to NAB, 31 of its financial planners were terminated, suspended or had their resignations “ensured” due to conflicts of interest, inappropriate advice, inappropriate practices or repeated compliance breaches

Disturbingly, the document states that these instances were not detected by the bank’s internal controls, but through client complaints or queries by authorities”.

This is further evidence that the financial advice sector is not up to scratch, and that despite the FOFA reforms (which has been subject to various government attempted revisions) we think that there is still room for significant improvement in the regulatory framework, practice and culture relating to providing good financial advice in Australia, with a focus on doing the right thing for clients. The claim that “its just a few bad apples” becomes less credible as more organisations are implicated. Both ASIC and the recent FSI report highlighted significant structural problems.  Remember the superannuation balances of Australians now stand at more than $1.93 trillion.

We think that the concept of general advice should be removed, and advisors should not be able to receive any indirect financial benefit from the advice they provide. Separately, financial products can be sold, provided all relevant facts, and costs are disclosed. The two – advice and product sales, should be separated completely. You can read my earlier discussions here.

FSI – On Financial Advice

The FSI report discusses the alignment of consumer outcomes and financial advice firms, questions “general financial advice” and adviser qualification. The report recommends that the term “general advice” be changed to better reflect what is intended and that the financial adviser or mortgage broker should be required to clearly explain their association with the product issuer. In addition, advisers should be better qualified and cultural misalignment addressed.

The GFC brought to light significant numbers of Australian consumers holding financial products that did not suit their needs and circumstances — in some cases resulting in severe financial loss. Previous collapses involving poor advice, information imbalances and exploitation of consumer behavioural biases have affected more than 80,000 consumers, with losses totalling more than $5 billion, or $4 billion after compensation and liquidator recoveries. The changes outlined in this report should also significantly improve consumer confidence and trust in the financial system.The most significant problems related to shortcomings in disclosure and financial advice, and over-reliance on financial literacy. The changes introduced under the Future of Financial Advice (FOFA) reforms are likely to address some of these shortcomings; however, many products are directly distributed, and issues of adviser competency remain.

The current regulatory framework addresses advice on financial products. The framework makes an important distinction between personal and general advice:
• Personal advice takes account of a person’s needs, objectives or personal circumstances, whereas general advice does not.
• General advice includes guidance, advertising, and promotional and sales material highlighting the potential benefits of financial products. It comes with a disclaimer stating that it does not take a consumer’s personal circumstances into account.

However, consumers may misinterpret or excessively rely on guidance, advertising, and promotional and sales material when it is described as ‘general advice’. The use of the word ‘advice’ may cause consumers to believe the information is tailored to their needs. Behavioural economics literature and ASIC’s financial literacy and consumer research suggests that terminology affects consumer understanding and perceptions. Often consumers do not understand their financial adviser’s or mortgage broker’s association with product issuers. This association might limit the product range an adviser or broker can recommend from. Of recently surveyed consumers, 55 per cent of those receiving financial advice from an entity owned by a large financial institution (but operating under a different brand name) thought the entity was independent.

The Inquiry believes greater transparency regarding the nature of advice and the ownership of advisers would help to build confidence and trust in the financial advice sector. In particular, ‘general advice’ should be replaced with a more appropriate, consumer-tested term to help reduce consumer misinterpretation and excessive reliance on this type of information. Consumer testing will generate some costs for Government, and relabelling will generate transitional costs for industry — although these are expected to be small. The Inquiry believes the benefits to consumers from clearer distinction and the reduced need for warnings outweigh these costs.

Although stakeholders have provided little evidence of differences in the quality of advice from independent or aligned and vertically integrated firms, the Inquiry sees the value to consumers in making ownership and alignment more transparent. In particular, these disclosures should be broader than Financial Services Guide and Credit Guide rules currently require, and could include branded documents or materials. The Inquiry believes the benefits to consumers would outweigh the transitional costs to industry of effecting branding changes.

In addition, the report highlights the need to raise the competency of financial advice providers, and introduce a register of advisers. The register was announced recently but we argued it was not alone sufficient.

The Interim Report observed that affordable, quality financial advice can bring significant benefits for consumers. However, according to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Corporations and Financial Services (PJCCFS), “the major criticism of the current system is that licensees’ minimum training standards for advisers are too low, particularly given the complexity of many financial products”. This affects confidence and trust in the sector and can prevent consumers from seeking financial advice.
A number of high-profile cases where consumers have suffered significant detriment through receiving poor advice, and a series of ASIC studies, have revealed issues with the quality of advice. For example, ASIC’s report on retirement advice found that only 3 per cent of Statements of Advice were labelled ‘good’, 39 per cent were ‘poor’ and the remaining 58 per cent ‘adequate’. Although these cases and many of these studies occurred before the FOFA reforms to improve remuneration structures, this is not the only issue. Adviser competence has also been a factor in poor consumer outcomes. ASIC’s review of advice on retail structured products found insufficient evidence of a reasonable basis for the advice in approximately half of the files.

Under the current framework, ASIC guidance sets out the minimum knowledge, skills and education for people who provide financial advice to comply with the Corporations Act 2001 and licence conditions. The training standards vary depending on whether the adviser is dealing with Tier 1 or Tier 2 financial products. As a minimum, current education standards are broadly equivalent to a Diploma under the Australian Qualifications Framework for Tier 1 products, and to a Certificate III for Tier 2 products.

Register of advisers
As the PJCCFS stated, “the licensing system does not currently provide a distinction between advisers on the basis of their qualifications, which is unhelpful for consumers when choosing a financial adviser”. ASIC currently has a public record of financial advice licensees and is notified of authorised representatives. However, ASIC has little visibility of employee advisers, or access to the type of information that an enhanced register could hold, such as length of experience and employment history. ASIC argues that transparency about advisers through an enhanced register is an important piece missing from the regulatory framework. Most stakeholders support introducing such an enhanced register.

Conclusion
The benefits of improving the quality of advice are significant. To achieve this, the Inquiry believes that minimum competency standards should be increased and the current Government process to review these standards should be prioritised.
In advance of the completion of the Government process, some adviser firms have recently announced they are increasing their own qualification requirements. However, low minimum competency standards have been a feature of the industry for a substantial length of time, and change is needed across the board. Many stakeholders are highly concerned about the low minimum education standards of financial advisers, with most supporting lifting education requirements to degree level.

Internationally, Singapore and the United Kingdom are seeking to raise minimum competency standards. The Inquiry is of the view that Australia should set high standards in comparison with peer jurisdictions. Although the Inquiry does not recommend a national exam for advisers, this could be considered if issues in adviser competency persist. For individual advisers and firms, the cost of undertaking further and ongoing education would be significant. However, this is a necessary transition to move towards higher standards of competence and would deliver long-term benefits for consumers. The cost would be mitigated by an appropriate transition period. Raising the minimum competency standards may increase the cost of advice for consumers. However, various cost effective market developments are emerging, such as scaled or limited advice and using technology to deliver advice.61 The Inquiry encourages advisers to develop new models for delivering advice more cost effectively to sit alongside existing comprehensive face-to-face advice models.

The requirement for higher education standards may cause some existing advisers to exit the industry and may deter some from entering, potentially causing an ‘advice gap’ for some consumers. Transitional arrangements to give advisers appropriate time to upgrade their qualifications would help manage this risk. Raising standards would also increase confidence and trust in the industry, encouraging more individuals to choose financial advisory services as a career path, and increasing the supply of financial advisers.

The Inquiry has not made a recommendation in relation to mortgage brokers. However, it considers that ASIC should continue to monitor consumer outcomes in this area and the performance of the industry in relation to its obligations under the National Consumer Credit Protection Act 2009. In relation to the register of advisers, the Inquiry supports the establishment of the enhanced register to facilitate consumer access to information about financial advisers’ experience and qualifications and improve transparency and competition. Further consideration could be given to adding other fields, such as determinations by the FOS.62 The register should be designed to take account of possible future developments in automated advice and record the entity responsible for providing such services.

At the heart of the matter is the question of aligning the interests of financial firms and consumers. This is a question of culture.

Recent cases of poor financial services provision raise serious concerns with the culture of firms and their apparent lack of customer focus. Research in 2009 suggested that financial firms may not be implementing systems and procedures within their organisations that promote ethical culture and integrate governance, risk management and compliance frameworks. In 2011–12, approximately 94 per cent of ASIC’s banning orders involved significant integrity issues, where the alleged conduct would breach professional and ethical standards and/or the conduct provisions in the Corporations Act 2001. The remaining 6 per cent of cases involved competency issues. The Inquiry considers that cases of consumer detriment and poor advice reflect organisational cultures that do not focus on consumer interests. Such cultures promote short-term commercial outcomes over longer-term customer relationships. This has contributed to a lack of consumer confidence and trust in the system. In research undertaken by Roy Morgan, only 28 per cent of participants gave financial planners ‘high’ or ‘very high’ ratings for ethics and honesty, and trust in bank managers was held by just 43 per cent of participants. In addition, ASIC found only 33 per cent of stakeholders agreed that financial firms operate with integrity.

Banning power
ASIC has observed phoenix activity in financial firms, where senior people from a financial firm with poor operating practices may establish a new business or move to an alternative firm. Currently, ASIC can prevent a person from providing financial services, but cannot prevent them from managing a financial firm. Nor can ASIC remove individuals involved in managing a firm that may have a culture of non-compliance.

Conclusion
To build confidence and trust in the financial system, financial firms need to be seen to act with greater integrity and accountability. The Inquiry believes changes are required not only to the regulatory regime and supervisory approach, but also to the culture and conduct of financial firms’ management, which needs to focus on consumer interests and outcomes. A change in culture in line with community expectations should promote confidence and trust in the financial system and limit the need for more significant regulation. Raising standards of conduct and levels of professionalism would require both a coordinated industry approach and focus of attention by individual firms. Industry associations could lead this initiative, with stakeholder input from ASIC and consumer organisations. Introducing or enhancing individual firm or industry codes of conduct is one way in which industry could set raised standards and hold themselves accountable. An enhanced banning power should improve professional behaviour, management accountability and the culture of firms, by removing certain individuals from the industry and preventing them from managing a financial firm. This should also include individuals who are licence holders or authorised representatives, or managers of a credit licensee. It should prevent those operating under an Australian Financial Services Licence from moving to operate under a credit licence and vice versa.

The Inquiry notes the FOFA ban on conflicted remuneration and associated measures are relatively new and should bring significant change to the industry and benefits for consumers. However, some incentive-based remuneration models remain, including grandfathered arrangements and other specific exclusions. The Inquiry believes that these instances of conflicted remuneration should be monitored, and Government should intervene if further significant issues are observed. Specific attention is required in the stockbroking sector in the immediate future. Unlike in the life insurance industry, a recent review of practices in stockbroking has not been undertaken. The Inquiry considers that ASIC should review current remuneration practices in stockbroking and advise Government on whether action is needed. The Inquiry believes that better aligning the interests of financial firms with consumer interests, combined with stronger and better resourced regulators with access to higher penalties, should lead to better consumer outcomes.

Given the current state of FOFA, there is an opportunity to get this reform on the right footing based on the recommendations. Most importantly, we believe product sales should be clearly separated from advice. Advice should separated from commissions and payments. Product sales can continue, but separate from advice. We agree that General Advice is not a helpful term.

 

Enhanced Financal Adviser Register Necessary, But Not Sufficient

The Treasury has released their proposals for an enhanced Financial Adviser Register for consultation. On 17 July 2014, the Government announced that it would establish an enhanced register of financial advisers, and on 24 October 2014, the Government announced details of the register’s content. Whilst the register is sound (we do not know how many advisers are operating in Australia), and the enhancements are appropriate given the issue of trust with respect to financial advice, DFA is of the view there are still significant gaps in relation to remuneration of advisers and potential conflicts. You can read our recent comments. In addition, further consideration needs to be given to how someone would find a suitable adviser. The MoneySmart Government website refers people to the professional associations, advice from friends and you can check the adviser or licensee’s name on ASIC Connect’s Professional Registers. However, currently advisers who are ’employee representatives’ will not appear on the register as their employer holds the AFSL. This is a muddled processes, and leaves consumers in the dark. More fundamental consideration needs to be given to this from a consumer perspective.

Turning to the current Exposure Draft, the Regulation proposes to make a number of amendments to the Corporations Regulation 2014 to:

  • enable ASIC to establish and maintain a public register of financial advisers; and
  • for Australian Financial Service licensees to collect and provide information to ASIC concerning financial advisers that operate under their licence.

A Consultation Note has also been developed to invite feedback from stakeholders on the key drafting issues, to ensure that the Regulation will implement the Government’s policy intent. This Consultation Note also includes: information on timing to enable the Register to be implemented by March 2015; and detail on the form lodgement fee increases necessary to fund the register. Submissions can be made to 17th December 2014.

Picking up on  the background in the supporting papers, currently, a person who carries on financial services businesses must obtain and maintain an Australian Financial Services Licence (licence) with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC). This person is referred to as a financial services licensee (licensee). Among other things, a person carries on a financial service business if they provide financial product advice. Currently, financial advice is classified under two categories. ‘Personal advice’ is financial product advice which takes into account the personal financial circumstances of the client. Any other financial product advice that does not take into account the client’s personal circumstances is termed ‘general advice.’ Individuals may provide financial product advice in a range of circumstances. They may be licensees themselves; or directors or employees of licensees. They may be non-director/non-employee representatives of licensees – these individuals are referred to as ‘authorised representatives’. In certain circumstances, an authorised representative can ‘sub-authorise’ another authorised representative to act on behalf of the licensee.

‘Representative’ is the overarching term used to describe authorised representatives, director representatives and employee representatives (including those that operate under a related body corporate of the licensee) and any other person acting on behalf of the licensee, that provide financial services under a licence. Responsibility for day-to-day supervision of representatives operating under a licence is devolved to licensees. Financial services licensees are not required to provide ASIC with certain information on director or employee representatives that operate under their licence. This may be contrasted with the requirements imposed on a licensee when it authorises a non-employee or non-director representative to act on its behalf. For these authorised representatives, licensees must lodge certain information with ASIC, and then ASIC must maintain a register of these individuals. Consequentially, there is no register that provides information to consumers, the financial advice industry, or ASIC regarding employee and director representatives of licensees. ASIC is currently only required to maintain public registers of licensees and authorised representatives of licensees. These registers provide information on a licensee or authorised representatives’:

  • registration/licence number;
  • licensee name/authorised representative name;
  • address;
  • start date of registration/licence;
  • history of previous licensees (for authorised representatives only);
  • status (whether the licensee/authorised representative is currently authorised); and
  • details of any conditions or restrictions about the registration.

As ASIC currently maintains registers of licensees and authorised representatives, but not other representatives of licensees, the total number of financial advisers operating in Australia is not known. There is also limited information available about financial advisers who are director or employee representatives. This transparency gap means consumers cannot easily check whether a particular individual is authorised to give them financial advice, or look up other information that would be valuable to them when verifying the credentials and status of an individual adviser. This gap also means that ASIC has limited visibility of the natural persons providing personal advice on more complex products to retail clients, and is restricted in its ability to identify, track and monitor these individuals who move from licensee to licensee as employees or directors. As a result, this limits ASIC’s ability to take action against individual advisers over and above action that relates to the relevant licensee.

The proposed new law will require a register of all individuals who provide personal advice on more complex products to retail clients under a financial services licence will enable consumers to verify that their individual adviser is appropriately authorised to provide advice and find out more information about the adviser before receiving financial advice. A comprehensive register will also assist ASIC to a regulate advisers who move between licensees as well as enabling the financial advice industry to better protect itself from rogue financial advisers. The new register will be limited to those providing personal advice on more complex products to retail clients – focussing on the area where rogue advisers or ‘bad apples’ present the greatest risk to consumers. The new register will build from the existing registers, and also contain information informing consumers of an adviser’s experience, their recent work history, the eventual owner of licensee they work on behalf, as well as information about whether ASIC has banned, disqualified or obtained enforceable undertakings in relation to them. It is intended that the register will, in time, also contain educational qualifications and professional association membership information. This would require further amendments to the Principal Regulations. The benefits of the enhanced public register include:

  • providing an easily accessible central record of the competency, employment history and misconduct of individual advisers;
  • assisting ASIC in its compliance activities and ability to respond to problem advisers;
  • assisting the industry itself to address risk where ‘bad apples’ are concerned; and
  • providing broad support for industry efforts to improve professionalism of the industry.