Identifying rotten apples

<i>Illustration: Greg Bakes</i>
Illustration: Greg Bakes

Removing bad apples from the financial planning industry has been a long-held ambition of the regulator.

Five years ago, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) launched a handbook with a reference-checking framework to be used by employers.

It was hoped it would encourage employers to seek and, also when requested, provide reference-checking information to help identify dishonest, incompetent or unethical advisers.

Recently, the senior manager at ASIC, Nick Coates, said that while most employers were aware of the handbook, many had not implemented its recommendations.

After years of responding only after fortunes were lost, the regulator has been given enhanced powers that should allow it to get on the front foot.

A series of financial-planning disasters in which hundreds of thousands of mostly retiree investors lost money, and many their life savings, has led to reforms, including increased powers for ASIC.

ASIC commissioner Peter Kell said recently the regulator could have been more effective in picking up industry intelligence and identifying problems before they ''blew up''.

The regulator is now able to cancel or suspend a financial-service licence or stop someone getting a licence where it believes the licensee is likely to contravene its licence obligations.

Previously, ASIC could only suspend or cancel a licence if it had reason to believe the licensee would not comply with the law. It is a small difference in wording but, with a tougher ''good fame and character'' test, it gives the regulator more leeway to remove bad advisers.

As the new powers came into effect on July 1, it is too early to say how well the regulator is using its enhanced powers. But without the co-operation of employers, the bad apples will not be stopped. Employers play a crucial role

in identifying and stopping them because individual planners are not licensed, registered or otherwise known to the regulator.

It is the financial-planning licensees and their authorised representatives (those who operate under the licence holders) who register with the regulator.

The regulator wants to have a register of all those giving personal financial advice, as is the case in Britain and the US. It could then better identify bad advisers who move between employers. Without a register, the regulator continues to have an incomplete picture.

In its submission to the parliamentary joint committee inquiry into the collapse of super provider Trio Capital, ASIC said it would like to have such a register.

A register of individual planners would also better support employers' efforts to conduct proper due diligence on prospective employees and build on ASIC's enhanced powers.

Hopefully, the government will have more to say on ASIC's desire for a register of planners when it responds to the findings of the Trio Capital inquiry.

This story Identifying rotten apples first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.