It was September 2008 and “dodgy” Don Nguyen was on suspension for alleged fraud and cash backhanders at the Commonwealth Bank’s Chatswood branch. Financial planner Jeff Morris was beavering away and studying hard to meet his quarterly competency training target.
Illustration: Simon Bosch.
As Morris studied for the continuous professional development (CPD) test – a requirement all financial planners must meet to continue practising - he became aware that not everyone was taking it as seriously as him.
After hitting the send button on his computer, he did a double take a few days later when he overheard some colleagues joking about the test and the manila folder being passed around containing cheat sheets. When he went to a team meeting he was even more horrified when some planners discussed working together, saying “just do one each and swap the answers”.
This contemptuous attitude to continuous professional development training was symptomatic of a far deeper problem Morris was about to blow the whistle on at CBA, which involved allegations of forgery and fraud and a cover up by management that would result in losses to clients of tens of millions of dollars.
The Commonwealth Bank financial planning scandal, which triggered a Senate inquiry, a recommendation for a royal commission into the bank and the opening up of compensation to hundreds of thousands of customers, has thrown the spotlight on some dark places in the financial planning industry, including the disturbingly low levels of education required to qualify as a financial planner and provide advice to customers managing their life savings.
Completion of an eight-day diploma known as RG146 is all it takes to qualify as a financial planner in Australia. No higher school education is required, tertiary education, work experience or professional accreditation.
RG146 stands for Regulatory Guide 146, which requires advisers to complete approved training courses that cover the products on which they provide advice. However, it does not dictate how training providers should assess candidates – exam or no exam, supervised or not supervised – which has led to a plethora of different courses and models provided by a dizzying array of “training institutes”, some of which are tiny private operations.
The guide also refers to an approved list of training bodies maintained by the corporate regulator which hasn’t been updated since September 2012 and no longer requires trainers to register with it.
As it currently stands, hairdressers, tyre fitters and mechanics require more onerous standards of education and work experience than a financial planner.
The lax standards, open book test and lack of supervision on continuous professional development exams have prompted a parliamentary joint committee to examine proposals to lift the “professional, ethical and education standards in the financial services industry”. Submissions close early next month.
A topic of discussion is expected to include the issue of widespread cheating, and the best way to stamp it out, to rebuild the tattered credibility of an industry that has been dragged through the mud in recent years by a string of scandals, including those involving CBA and Storm Financial.
A Fairfax Media investigation can reveal that two experienced planners in CBA’s Western Australian division were recently terminated after being caught getting their juniors to sit the test for them.
“Recently we became aware that two employees in Commonwealth Financial Planning (CFPL) acted inappropriately during the completion of their mandatory training; one was in relation to Certified Professional Development (CPD) and the other was non-CPD training. These individuals are no longer with the group,” the bank said in a statement.
It follows reports earlier this month by Fairfax Media that some advisers at Macquarie Private Wealth cheated on exams using a document known in Sydney as the "Penske File". The file contained answers to continuing examinations advisers are required to take annually in order to keep their professional accreditation up to date.
Macquarie refused to comment on the Penske File but after the publication of the Fairfax Media report it posted a statement on its website saying it had "examined the claim and found no evidence of it", and that it would complain to the Press Council about BusinessDay's coverage of the issue.
However, ASIC commissioner Peter Kell says the regulator is "aware of allegations that it exists".
Macquarie is being prised out of its own private Idaho - a world of its own making - with the corporate regulator announcing on Friday the private wealth unit would write to 160,000 customers, as part of an enforceable undertaking slapped on Macquarie in January 2013.
Pressed on the Penske File, Kell says: "That is part of the work and the issues we’re considering under the EU. I don’t want to go further into discussing that at this point in time.’’
It follows revelations in Fairfax Media earlier this month that hundreds, and possibly thousands, of customers of Macquarie may have been wrongly classified as sophisticated or wholesale investors rather than retail investors to get around the extra regulatory requirements and paperwork that advisers must complete for retail clients.
It also enables advisers to push investors into more complex exotic products, many of them Macquarie-related products, which pay the advisers higher fees and commissions.
The misconduct inside Macquarie's private wealth division occurred about the same time that Morris approached ASIC warning it of a "high-level conspiracy" to conceal the "corruption and gross incompetence" of some of the CBA's star financial planners, including Nguyen.
As Morris says: “The basic qualification to be a financial planner could be regarded as a joke were it not for the fact that financial illiterates armed with nothing more than this flimsy “qualification” are turned loose to advise people on their life savings, with often tragic results. That this has been the case for so long is yet another damning indictment of the slumbering regulator, ASIC.”
Of the country’s 18,000 financial planners, 80 per cent work directly or are associated with the big financial institutions. An estimated 5500 are Certified Financial Planners, who are tertiary educated, have three years' work experience and are required to sit and pass far more onerous courses than RG146.
The statistics on the correlation between low education and misconduct are compelling. In the past five years the corporate regulator has banned 85 financial planners and only six of them were certified financial planners. Of the six, two, including Nguyen, were associated with CBA’s two financial planning divisions.
Finance Minister Mathias Cormann has put the RG146 system under the microscope as industry figures call for a university degree to become the minimum entry standard.
Senator John Williams, who is a member of the parliamentary joint committee, says: “You can walk out a shearing shed and do an eight-day crash course and then go and tell people how to invest their life savings. Something is wrong.”
Senator Williams says he supports the drive to lift standards and clean up the industry.
“Hopefully in the future we will have a cleaned up industry.”
Higher education is something the Financial Planning Association has been pushing for years. It argues education and experience standards should be raised to require all financial planners to have a relevant university degree and three years' experience over a five-year period.
It says financial planners should also be required to undertake minimum professional development courses over each three-year period.
Last month CBA made a pre-emptive strike and announced it would lift education standards, committing that any financial planner and their managers who don't have relevant tertiary education must complete the Advanced Diploma of Financial Planning by 2017, which has eight compulsory units to RG146’s four, and senior financial planners would be required to obtain the “Certified Financial Planner” qualification by that date.
Tim Mackay, a certified financial planner at independent financial advisory group Quantum Financial, is one of a number of independent advisers who have been lobbying for higher standards of education for years. He says lifting education standards will establish the basis for a sustainable long-term future for financial planners.
“Most importantly of all, the public interest will be served by a trusted group of people who will be regarded as true professionals. Without such a change, the industry is consigned to an uncertain and highly regulated future," he says.
Mackay says Australians have seen recurring examples of rampant abuse of consumers and a lack of professionalism shown by the advisers they trusted, and he warns thatonly the ability of Australians to identify and place their trust in competent, ethical and more highly educated professional financial planners will re-build confidence in the nation’s markets.
“Increasing education standards is a crucial element to lifting professional standards,” he says. “If we want to be perceived as being on the same professional level as doctors, lawyers and accountants then completing tertiary education and a professional designation is critical. Savvy consumers now demand their adviser hold the recognised professional designation, Certified Financial Planner.”
Brian Knight is the general manager of training group Kaplan Professional, which offers most of the financial services industry's RG146 courses. He says his organisation has been ‘‘outspoken’’ in its criticism of RG146 and wants to be part of a move towards a minimum degree qualification for advisers.
Matthew Rowe, the chairman of the Financial Planning Association, has long called for higher educational standards. Membership of his organisation requires at least an undergraduate degree, and to earn the flagship CFP accreditation advisers must pass a rigorous exam.
“The FPA announced in 2011 that membership would be restricted in future to those that hold, as a minimum, an approved university degree," he says. "It is widely acknowledged that the community now expects those responsible for their financial well-being to hold, as a minimum, degree qualifications and in addition professional certification from a professional association.”
The Association of Financial Advisers’ Brad Fox also appears to have seen the writing on the wall and concedes it is ‘‘time there was a degree-level entry standard’’. The AFA is a rival professional body to the FPA that was against banning commissions and supported general advice exemption on commissions. However, Mr Fox says there needs to be a “transition plan” to get existing advisers up to scratch through ‘‘degree-level assessment’’.
And while ASIC chairman Greg Medcraft has been vocal in calling for a national exam for financial advisers, which would enforce minimum standards, putting in place such an exam would require new legislation.
In a statement, the regulator said that “the culture of the financial advice sector and its participants, including advisers, needs to change in order for the industry to win the trust and confidence of Australians. Consistent with ASIC's normal approach, if there are concerns about any specific conduct, complaints can be lodged with ASIC and they will be assessed in the normal course."
In the meantime, everyone from private operations to not-for-profit groups including the Stockbrokers Association of Australia, which trains brokers how to advise on equities and margin loans, to market leader Kaplan offer courses touted as RG146-compliant.
Kaplan’s Knight wouldn’t talk about the company’s clients, but the Commonwealth Bank said it uses Kaplan to provide RG146 courses and continuing professional development. Macquarie Group is also believed to be a client but a Macquarie spokeswoman refused to say, when asked, if the company used Kaplan.
‘‘If you did the first four subjects, that would allow you to provide advice in life insurance and superannuation, financial planning, managed investments and securities,’’ Knight says.
‘‘You can then add on things like derivatives, margin lending, other courses if you want. People take about 15 weeks on average per subject with us. We have about 50 per cent fail the exams."
Knight is scathing about some of his counterparts in the training industry, who he says need to be run out of town.
‘‘There are some suppliers who promote no exams, no assignments. You get some who promote that you can do it in eight days,’’ he says.
Joel Ronchi and his partner Barbara Lacy run Integrity Education Group, which Ronchi says trains between 300 and 400 people a year.
‘‘We’re not huge, we’re very much a boutique,’’ Ronchi says.
Integrity offers ‘‘self-paced’’ courses, delivered over the internet with optional face-to-face workshops.
RG146 candidates need to complete four units, each of which is tested by a multiple choice exam, short answer questions, a case study and a role play.
‘‘Role plays can be done in person, role plays can be done over the phone, Skype,’’ Ronchi says.
Integrity doesn't offer continuing professional development programs – something that is required under RG146, but no minimum standard is specified.
In just two paragraphs, the guide says financial service licensees are required to ‘‘implement policies and procedures to ensure that their advisers ... undertake continuing training to maintain and update the knowledge and skills that are appropriate for their activities’’.
However, the training is not required to be overseen by an authorised assessor. Ronchi says continuing professional development suffers because it is ‘‘driven and governed’’ by licensees, who have the discretion to decide what they consider acceptable.
He says he saw plenty of cheating on continuing professional developments during a stint as a financial planner, before he went into the education business.
‘‘Even back then it [cheating] was pretty rife, planners getting their assistants to do it and that kind of thing,’’ he says. “That hasn’t really changed.’’
Kaplan’s Knight disagrees. He says incidents such as the Penske File are unusual.
‘‘To be very frank it’s rare, and we were surprised when we saw this one,’’ he says. ‘‘We see a hell of a lot of the industry and if they get it wrong they really work with us to get it right going forward.’’
Fox, from the AFA, said it was ‘‘beyond belief’’ that advisers would feel the need to cheat.
‘‘It’s not something we’ve seen,’’ he says. ‘‘I guess when you look at CPD, and particularly with online exams, it’s difficult to tell who has logged in and is submitting the results.
‘‘Having been an adviser myself, I can’t for a moment begin to understand why an adviser would feel the need to not do it themselves.
‘‘A, there should be a thirst for ongoing knowledge and B, for the most part earning these points is usually testing knowledge you already have.’’
In addition to the PJC inquiry, Cormann has also set up an industry working group taking in everyone from Knight to the AFA’s Phil Anderson (formerly head of risk management and compliance at CBA’s troubled advice arm, CFS) to ASIC commissioner Peter Kell.
“The industry working group will also consider further improvements to professional, ethical and educational standards for the financial advice industry,” he says.
“This will include consideration whether the minimum standards set out in RG146 adequately reflect the knowledge and competency that is required to provide sound financial advice and how standards should be enforced.’’
The working group was originally due to report back to Cormann by mid-August and it is believed it will deliver him its results soon.
“Excessive knowledge would probably have been seen as a barrier to product flogging,” says Morris, who has law degree and is a certified financial planner. “Better to have barely qualified people who won’t think too deeply about what they are doing."Author: Adele Ferguson and Ben ButlerSource: Sydney Morning Herald
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