Public protection demands reform of financial sector


Being constantly bombarded with sales pitches and lifestyle advertising from the financial industry, Canadians would be well served by stronger regulation of the sector.

A spate of recent stories about ambiguous claims and deceptive practices make it clear that the overwhelming majority of what is called financial advice is nothing more than a sales job. Very few people offering up a variety of products have any fiduciary duty to their clients. Instead, most are simply selling investment vehicles that pay the largest commissions to themselves and their employers, often the country’s largest banks.

Take, for instance, the use of “financial adviser” instead of “financial advisor.” The former, with an “e,” has a legal requirement of some financial duty to the clients. The latter with an “o”, much more common, is a workaround that comes without any obligation. Or requirement to disclose.

This is not to say that everyone in the industry is out to deceive, but ethics are a big issue. Even with all the scrutiny – and multi-billion-dollar losses – that came with the meltdown of 2008, almost entirely caused by unethical conduct in the industry, has failed to protect the public. That’s how, almost a decade later, we’re still hearing individual horror stories that in turn beget more of the same. And still more.

It’s into this climate that a group called the Canadian Foundation for Advancement in Investor Rights (FAIR Canada) last week called for reforms to prevent those selling investment vehicles such as mutual funds (themselves an issue given the propensity of fees to erode large chunks of clients’ money) acting in their own interests over those of their customers.

It wants reforms that will require “financial advisors” and their firms to have a statutory duty to act in their client’s best interests. The group is calling on government regulators to move forward quickly with implementing a best interest standard that prohibits conflicted remuneration and requires the avoidance of conflicts of interest.

“Titles should be regulated so it is clear to consumers whether they are getting advice in their best interest or not”, says Ermanno Pascutto, FAIR Canada’s board chair. “Those who do not provide advice in the consumer’s best interest should be called a “salesperson” and not be held out as a ‘financial advisor.’”

The public has every right to be suspicious of the financial services industry, above and beyond our natural distrust of banks and insurance companies and their fees. A 2015 study of the sector in the U.S. and the UK – The Street, The Bull and The Crisis – found post-2008 attitudes towards ethics within the industry to be heading in the wrong direction. It notes that unethical behaviour persists, with a culture of integrity failing to take hold – not surprising given that bailouts were largely aimed at those responsible, many of whom pocketed bonuses as taxpayers – those paying the bills – lost their homes and jobs.

Without an aggressive plan to stamp out misconduct, we are simply sitting and waiting for another financial disaster to strike, the study determined.

In line with pension reform, this is an issue for many of us who don’t have a pension – that’s the case for the majority of workers outside of government ranks – and rely on personal savings and investments to fund their retirement. We simply can’t afford the status quo in an investment industry that makes billions from deliberately confusing its clients and steering them toward expensive products that shrink retirement accounts over time.