31 July 2006

Why AMP got busted

This is something that I didn’t think that I’d re-visit for a little while, however, the whole situation that blew up last week requires some reflection.

For those who don’t know, AMP Financial Planning was pinged in a big way by ASIC for an large ongoing amount of inappropriate advice being given out.

Basically, what was happening was that advisers were recommending that their clients roll over their superannuation to another fund, which was, more often than not, administered by AMP.

This isn't bad in itself.

But they were doing it enough to warrant a second look by the corporate regulator. And they were giving inadequate reasons for such recommendations whenever they did it. Finally, they weren't discussing what it was going to cost clients to roll over.

Now it’s the worst kept secret in the industry that advisers are under pressure to do exactly that – sell the products provided by the company that you represent.

And why not? It’s bleeding obvious to even the most financially illiterate observer that an AMP-branded adviser, or anyone else for that matter, is going to be told to push the products of the hand that feeds them.

But from the other perspective, how many mug investors know that Godfrey Pembroke, for example, is a member of the National Australia Bank group of companies, which also includes MLC? How many investors know that RetireInvest is part of the global ING group?

This blogger was formerly employed by and represented another financial institution which also just happened to have funds management, life and general insurance and banking operations.

Yes. We were told in no uncertain terms that, although we had various products from various providers on our approved product lists, we were to make sure that our first choice was from the providers in our group of companies.

This, when it was painted in such stark language, caused me to re-think my career in financial services.

Now I left the advice business in 2003 when it became clear to me that working for the same company as the product provider caused all sorts of dodgy situations.

My personal experience went something like these:

Story 1:

Boss-man: (at a meeting of advisers in the area/region/zone/district) We need sales to improve. So we’d like you to “churn”.

Adviser 1: Isn’t that unethical?

Boss-man: Other areas/regions/zones/districts are doing it.

Adviser 2: Surely that doesn’t mean that we should.

Boss-man: Look. All you have to do is find some good reasons to get your clients to do it.

Adviser 3: Could you provide us with some written guidelines that illustrate how we can do this ethically?

Boss-man: No. This is simple, straightforward stuff. You should be able to work out how to do this. Or maybe you think that a job here is not for you?

Note that “churning” is a particularly smelly practice that involves swapping existing clients from one product to another for no reason at all other than to collect another fee on the way through.

Story 2:

Boss-man: (at a sales seminar) I’ve brought in a “BDM” to explain to you why you should consider moving your clients in product X to product Y.

BDM: Thank you, Boss-man. Folks, your clients are currently in the equivalent of a Mitsubishi Magna (large-medium family sedan, for those outside Australia). How good would it be if you could move them to a Rolls-Royce?

Adviser 4: Sticking with your car analogy for a moment, what if what they really need is not a Magna or a Rolls Royce, but a Toyota Corolla?

BDM: Who wants one of those, really?

Adviser 4: Isn’t that between us and our clients?

Note that a BDM (Business Development Manager) is a representative of the product provider who liaises with the advisers similar to how a drug company sales representative might liaise with a doctor.

Doctors don’t get sales commissions, though.

But let’s put that aside and look at the argument.

Financial institutions such as life companies, fund managers and banks all rely on a dealership network of sorts to market their products.

“So what?” they say, “Doesn’t Ford and Toyota rely on a network of dealerships to sell their cars? Don’t Telstra and Vodafone relay on a network of dealers to sell their mobile phones?”

This is a valid argument.

If an investor goes into the office of a financial adviser from AMP or anyone else who also manufactures financial products, he should expect to receive advice that products from AMP are the best for him.

And, in some way, shape or form, he will receive a Statement of Advice to that effect. It will say that the product that the adviser is recommending is most appropriate for him for reasons A, B and/or C.

It’s at this point that the uninitiated usually ask “Hang on. If they’re providing advice, shouldn’t they be considering all products equally?”

Well, they should at least be considering a broad spread of products, yes.

Certainly, that spread should be a lot broader than what would be on your typical Approved Product List (APL) for your adviser from the particular dealership that that adviser works for.

Where a financial institution’s argument about being a dealership for in-house products comes unstuck is in the question asked above. And if you muttered "Conflict of Interest" under your breath, give yourself a point.

Does a car salesman for Toyota consider that they are an “auto-adviser”?

Should a mobile phone salesman at a Vodafone branch be considered an adviser?

The answer is a no-brainer. Product advice of any sort requires products from a variety of providers to be considered. At least, if you would like objective advice to be provided, anyway.

The dealership argument is a sound one. However, it is rendered null and void by the fact that the dealers themselves are simply not advisers – they are salespeople.

A financial institution, at this point, will jump up and down and scream, “How, then, do we get our product out there, for Joe Public to invest in/buy/use?”

The answers to this are pretty easy, actually:

  1. Produce stuff that is worth it to consumers to use. Concentrate on old-fashioned values like high returns, low fees, simplicity and ease of use and easy to read documentation. There are companies out there who are doing this now, and who do not rely on a network of financial advisers to sell their product.
  2. Cut out the middle man and advertise directly to clients. Clearly, you’re uninterested in providing a service that’s worth anything to anyone if your advice network is merely an expensive rubber stamp. Why would, or should, clients accept bits being sliced off here or there if there is no value being provided?
  3. Call your network of advisers, “salespeople”. This is just telling it how it is. Why mislead clients further by creating the expectation that they are getting something objective?
  4. Put advisers’ APLs into a client friendly brochure. Why continue to be bashful about the fact that advisers are tied to a particular provider? What is it that you’re really ashamed of?
The fact is that AMP got busted. But it could have been anyone.

AMP are to get an enforceable undertaking from ASIC and this will probably last for the next few years at least.

Bravo to ASIC for targetting the dealerships.

It should, of course, be remembered that the advisers are every bit as complicit as the dealership that they represent. Yes, I know it's hard saying no, but if soldiers can be found guilty at war crimes trials for merely following orders, then advisers should, most certainly, not get off lightly in the least.

But it is clear to even the most disinterested of observers that it was AMPFP's internal policies in the first place which has lead to ASIC's action.

Having an interest in the industry, the very important piece of wishful thinking is that the progressive move away from commissions towards fees-for-service should prevent this sort of thing from happening in the future.

Sadly, I'm not positive that this will be the case. AMP will still require sales. So too will other institutions that produce their own products. And thus there will always be some kind of pressure on advisers to tow the line.

But the four points I've outlined above would, at least, make the whole thing a lot more honest.

Disclosure: This blogger owns shares in National Australia Bank Limited.

Standard but necessary disclaimer: This is not advice. Only a complete idiot would think that any of this constituted advice. It's not even vaguely reasonable to consider this to be advice. If you are in any doubt as to the content of this, see a good, independent financial adviser immediately. They do exist.


Anonymous said...

Good one Dikkii. I liked the way you took it apart.

You made some very good points and once again, have cleared the muddied waters of finance a little more for me...:)

(wish I could do this on Whitepage...)

Dikkii said...

Thanks Ted.

Nice to know that it's appreciated.

Unknown said...

Very cogent analysis, Dikkii. I work for an outsourcing firm which has just recently taken over the processing of high-value mortgage business from a bank owned by the National Australia Bank. Their idea of compliant-business practice is far removed from what my organisation has been used to, and has created a large gulf in management methodology which is increasingly difficult to bridge. In terms of BDM's, they are glorified sales facilitators whose seemingly only purpose is finding new and more innovative ways of bypassing compliance regulations, accelerating applications, without due respect for money-laundering regulations, and simplifying brokers' jobs to the point of minimalism.

Of course any sensible consumer would always consult a fully independant financial advisor, rather than a tied or multi-tied broker, however much of the general population are novices in terms of their knowledge of the financial services industry. The other aspect plainly is that there really is no such thing as a fully independant financial advisors as they ALL have variegated agendas, corporate relationships, and the finger on the pulse of what is occuring in the financial markets. Nonetheless I agree with the substance of your post.

Dikkii said...

Thanks Richard, and very nice to hear from you.

The struggle between ethical/legal business practises and the quest for sales reminds me of that scene from the Simpsons where Homer talks about, "The struggle between good and evil that cannot be resolved."

While he's talking, a thought bubble pops out of his head with Homer in a devil suit shaking maracas and dancing on a grave clearly marked as "Good Homer". Homer-in-the-devil-suit is, meanwhile, singing, "I am Evil Homer! I am Evil Homer!..."

Genius. The scene, I mean.

Anyway, I can empathise with what your business is going through.

BDM's? Agree 100 percent.

Independent? Well, you have to be careful in Australia, because the term "independent" is enshrined in law under the Corporations Act. But yeah, no one is fully independent.

However, I like to believe that some are closer to true independence than others. Fee-for-service is one way that some advisers are achieving this.

Nice to hear from you, Richard. Please feel free to return