Financial advisers like using terms such as "white-label payments", "cross-subsidisation", "vertical integration" and "volume payments". You probably won't know what they're talking about unless you're an adviser yourself. It's even harder to know whether the financial products they recommend are good for you, or just good for them. And that's where the Future of Financial Advice (FoFA) reforms are meant to step in.

What they actually mean

The cryptic terminology basically describes how advisers get paid. In the case of volume payments, advisers are encouraged to sell as many financial products to as many people as possible, regardless of whether the product is suitable for the client.

They get a cut from the originator of the product or investment scheme (usually an insurance company, bank or fund manager) based on the total volume of sales.

It's not unlike how salespeople receive commissions to sell cars, except what's on offer can have a permanent impact on your financial well-being.

The payment models

There are three main types of payment schemes for advisers: commissions, asset-based fees and fee for service.

Commissions

This is the most common type, and usually attracts the highest fees.

  • An adviser will get a commission from product providers such as managed funds when they sell their products.
  • This is usually an initial (entry) fee of up to 5% of your initial and subsequent investments, and a trail commission of about 0.5% of the balance of your portfolio each year.
  • Commissions are much higher on life, income protection and disability insurance.

Asset-based fees

A second form of payment, similar to trail commissions and agreed between investors and advisers, is a percentage "asset-based" fee. It's charged as a proportion of your investments or portfolio.

We recommend consumers avoid this type of payment scheme, since fees increase as the value of the account increases, whether or not the adviser has done anything to earn the extra money.

Fee for service

This is a basic fee-for-advice, based on a set or hourly fee.

  • This type attracts the fewest conflicts of interest.
  • There are an increasing number of fee-based advisers and groups who have adopted this approach, including the Financial Planning Association, AMP and MLC.
  • However, even with fee-based advice, there are traps to watch for.
  • Some advisers may like to appear independent by charging fees, while continuing to rake in product commissions as well.

Conflicted advice

Commissions proved toxic for unwitting consumers in corporate collapses such as Westpoint Corporation.

In the quest for commissions, some advisers persuaded consumers to lend money to property developers without warning that the investments were highly speculative. The developers were, in effect, gambling with their money.

Others talked clients into complex and high-risk structured investments that offered no way out when the global downturn began to spread in late 2007.

Dangerous advice

Worst of all, some investors were advised to take out margin loans, sell shares or investment properties and even borrow against their homes. As markets were pushed downward and the margin calls came in, many lost their homes along with the initial investments.

Conflicted interests

Relationship advisers are co-dependent with the companies who make the products they sell.

  • Our 2010 investigation revealed that Australia's six largest financial planning groups had consistently directed customers to their own superannuation products.
  • The breakdown showed deep-rooted conflicts of interest, since advisers were clearly inclined to recommend products that stood to increase their commissions.
  • In all, advisers recommended products from their direct or indirect employer a whopping 73% of the time.
  • These were unlikely to be best products for their clients.
  • Worse, these fee schemes are often ongoing (a phenomenon known as trailing fees) and unaccountable.

In 2009 alone, around $1.3 billion in superannuation commissions flowed from consumers to advisers. That's despite the advisers providing no service to the consumer.

Case in point

CHOICE members Denise and her husband were talked into having a fresh look at their finances by an adviser. They were charged $1250 up front. "We were advised to borrow $200,000 against our house to invest elsewhere, to switch our super funds, and to take out extra life insurance to cover new debt," Denise says. "They ran through it as if it was a win-win situation and expected us to sign on the spot."

The couple didn't sign as they felt uncomfortable with the recommendations. The adviser would have taken a large cut of their money:

  • not only the $1250 upfront fee, but a further $6600 from the loan for "initial advice",
  • $3800 in initial insurance commissions,
  • $2700 per year in insurance trail commissions, and
  • $2200 annually in superannuation investment commissions.

All up, the strategy's fees were almost $12,000 up-front and $2700 annually. Denise's super fees would have doubled if she'd switched, as recommended, from her industry fund, REST Super.

"All I wanted was advice on how to minimise our tax, pay off the mortgage and boost our super. We also wanted some advice on a property investment, but were advised to invest in a managed fund with lots of adviser commissions.

Our bank felt it was risky and that the expected returns were a bit inflated, so we didn't follow through. I wish we hadn't been pushed into the appointment, as that $1250 could've been spent on my mortgage."

FoFA – the long-awaited reforms

Thankfully, the way advisers make their money is undergoing significant change with the implementation of the Future of Financial Advice (FoFA) reforms.

  • The reforms require financial advisers to ask clients to 'opt-in' every two years if they wish to continue to receive ongoing advice;
  • place a ban on commissions on risk insurance inside superannuation; and
  • put a broad ban on volume-based payments.

The reforms also imposed a ban on trailing and up-front commissions and similar payments as of July 2013, but allowed existing commission arrangements to remain.

It means you may still be paying commissions if you established a relationship with a financial adviser before July 2013.

What it means for you

The net effect of FoFA should be that you'll no longer receive recommendations based on the adviser's commercial relationship with the bank or insurance company. You should also be able to see and understand the advice you're paying for.

These are huge changes that go a long way to improve transparency and fairness in the financial advice industry, but the industry is not letting go of its long-entrenched funding models without a fight.

Exempt fees

The reforms only go so far. For instance, the ban on adviser commissions does not include risky products, such as life insurance outside of superannuation. This is despite the fact commissions of up to 120% of the first year's premiums are paid to advisers, with trail commissions of about 10% in subsequent years.

Or advisers may receive a flat commission worth as much as 30% for every year you have the policy. These are staggeringly high commissions that potentially encourage advisers to churn people into new policies in order to receive the high initial kick-back.

They've been left out of FoFA because the advice industry convinced the government that removing sales commissions would reduce the amount of insurance sold, leaving consumers vulnerable.

Industry pushback

The financial services industry has fought hard to get rid of important consumer protections in the FoFA reform package – to the point where the reforms would no longer achieve the intended effect of removing bias and conflict of interest. 

The anti-reformists have gone right to the heart of why the reforms came about in the first place. Among other things, the industry has pushed to have the legislation amended to allow advisers to continue recommending financial products from which they draw ongoing commissions.

Many advisers don't let vested interests influence their advice. But there are many who do. The victims of financial advice scandals such as Storm Financial can attest to that.

Money for nothing

And in an attempt to hold on to passive income streams - those hidden ongoing fees you pay whether or not you've asked for or received any services - the industry is out to scuttle the opt-in clause.

The advice lobby also wants to do away with the requirement to provide customers with an annual statement explaining what they've been paying for.

These provisions were included in FoFA for good reason - because such information has been woefully lacking for decades, and the lack of transparency has cost Australian consumers dearly.

Reforms cost consumers?

The advice industry argues that the cost of implementing the reforms without its recommended changes would be passed onto consumers and that, as a result, fewer people would be able to afford advice. The counter-argument is that conflicted advice and hidden fees are the greater long-term threat to consumers.

Advisers also have a habit of selling advice to consumers that's inappropriate to their circumstances, which is why FoFA requires that advisers act in the "best interests" of their clients. The advice industry has also tried to water down this key FoFA clause.

What CHOICE wants

In a submission to the federal government aimed at preventing the reforms from being amended in favour of the advice industry, we called on lawmakers to:

  • keep the best interests obligation intact
  • keep the opt-in requirement intact
  • ensure that consolidated annual fee statements go to existing clients, not just new ones
  • ensure that the ban on commissions is not watered down.

We're not the only ones who have found evidence of a broken system. An ASIC investigation in 2012 found that only 58% of retirement advice was of an acceptable standard. In many cases, the bad advice was attributed to the influence of commissions and the failure of an adviser to act in the client's best interest.

Twenty years of campaigning

A review of CHOICE research and investigations over the last two decades vindicates our public statements that the industry needed urgent reform to protect consumers.

1990

"Many financial advisers are simply agents for fund managers and investment companies; although they claim to offer impartial and independent advice, their main priority is to sell as many investments as possible, so the client's needs are often pushed into the background."
- (In) vested interests, CHOICE, March 1990.

1993

"The further we delve into the industry, the less attractive it appears. All of these arrangements are structurally corrupt."
- Australian Consumers' Association chief executive, Louise Sylvan, in the Australian Financial Review.

1995

We launched our first "shadow shop" of the advice industry, with disturbing results. Less than 10% of the 58 financial plans examined were classified as good, based on the scores of our expert panel. 65% ranged from acceptable down to bordering on poor, while a quarter were sub-standard.
- Take my advice? CHOICE, April 1995.

1998

Our shadow shop found found many planners falling short of the industry's own best-practice standards. "The best comprehensive plans were generated when a client had a significant amount of money available for immediate investment," we wrote. "It's unacceptable that the quality of advice is determined by the amount of money you have to invest … If you're getting cheap advice, it's probably poor advice."
- Who do you trust with your life savings?, CHOICE, October 1998.

2003

Another large-scale shadow shop, this time a joint project with ASIC. "The quality of advice given by some financial planners in our survey is frighteningly poor. The 'advice' given often seemed like thinly disguised product selling. Far too many planners behaved more like salespeople for fund managers than impartial financial guides. Plans graded poor or very poor (27% of the total) were grossly inadequate."
- Too many poor plans, CHOICE, January/February 2003.

2005

"Financial planners want to call themselves professionals, but they don't want to commit to the fundamental underpinnings of a profession – the fiduciary duty to the client. This would require the elevation of the client's interest over and above the industry's and require the removal of all conflicts of interest. Structural conflicts in the industry undermine consumer confidence, destroy trust and suggest the industry is without integrity. My message to you is this: unless the industry reforms itself, change will be imposed."
- Jenni Mack, CHOICE Chairperson, in a speech to financial advisers.

2006

"There's no valid justification for trail commissions and fund managers should abolish them as a payment method to planners. Trails paid by fund managers create a conflict of interest for financial planners."
- Unhappy trails, CHOICE Money & Rights, October/November 2005.

2009

"Conflicts can mean that advisers are effectively salespeople of product providers. Conflicts can encourage advisers to sell products instead of providing strategic advice. Conflicts may provide incentives to recommend products that are inappropriate. They can encourage advisers to churn clients through products. Worse yet, they can encourage clients to borrow inappropriately to invest. Upfront and trail commissions, asset based fees, soft dollar commissions and volume bonuses all exhibit one or more of these conflicts. This is not a marginal problem. Around 85 per cent of adviser revenue is generated through these payments."
- CHOICE evidence to Parliamentary Joint Inquiry, September 2009.

2010

"Consumers will be the winners as a result of the federal government's decisive action to end commission-based remuneration for financial planners. CHOICE has argued over many years that commissions create an unacceptable conflict of interest for financial planners which can lead to dangerous or poor quality financial products being sold to consumers. The government's plans incorporate many of the recommendations we made to the parliamentary joint committee on financial services. We are particularly pleased that asset-based fees will not be levied on geared products. But we remain concerned that the industry is attempting to transition from commissions to asset-based fees. Our preference is for fixed fees which could be either a fixed lump sum or hourly rate charged by the adviser to the client."
- CHOICE Media statement.