Pension advice given now could seriously affect your wealth. How good are the advisers? Our reporter finds out
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THE SCANDALS of the past two years have given financial advisers the bad name once reserved for estate agents. Nearly 1.5m people were wrongly advised to buy personal pensions, leaving them worse off than if they had stayed in or joined their company schemes. Recent research for Which? found that around half of the 40 advisers it visited were pushing unsuitable products.

How do you decide what provision to make for your old age? We visited five advisers, without telling them we were from the Independent on Sunday, to see what they suggested. Four belonged to institutions with investment products to sell; the fifth was independent. We also wanted to see if they explained the intricacies of personal finance clearly, or whether they obfuscated with jargon.

To assess the quality of the advice, we asked three experts, also independent financial advisers, to comment on what we were told. Our reporter, posing (without too much difficulty) as financially naive, asked the following question: what provision should a 35-year-old office manager earning pounds 15,000 a year make for the future? Our fictional office manager was married, with a husband who earned pounds 30,000, a mortgage of pounds 90,000, and had pounds 3,000 in a building society account. She had the chance to join a company pension scheme, but planned to leave her employer soon, either for a new job or perhaps to start a family.

In general, the people we saw were extremely cautious about suggesting a personal pension. One adviser we telephoned even refused to make an appointment to discuss it. As with all investment recommendations, it is difficult to say one piece of advice is absolutely right and another wrong. We did find, however, that some advisers were more thorough in their investigation of the reporter's circumstances (vital in order to tailor advice to the individual), considered more options, and were clearer in their explanations.


Roddy Kohn of Kohn Cougar; Philippa Gee of RE Gee; Amanda Davidson of Holdan Meehan.


The man from the Pru went through a questionnaire asking my age, occupation, salary and so on, and what savings and investments I had. He asked how financially aware I considered myself. Did I read the City pages, or know whether my tax code was correct? We agreed that I was "low" on this scale. A flow chart in the questionnaire showed very clearly that the only correct answer to my dilemma was to join the company pension scheme. As I had missed several years' premiums, I should boost my pension by making extra payments (known as additional voluntary contributions) either through my employer or - no surprise here - through the Prudential. He also recommended taking out life insurance. There was just a hint of sales talk, the representative suggesting that the Prudential would be "very competitive" when my household insurance came up for renewal.

THE EXPERTS Amanda Davidson: Good points included asking for further information on the company pension scheme, but he focused too narrowly on pension schemes and life insurance and missed some important points - such as asking the client's attitude to risk when making investments. Philippa Gee: Good method of analysing the client's financial awareness, but made a couple of factual errors and left out some important questions. Roddy Kohn: Excellent advice to join company pension scheme; the best adviser because of his comprehensive and thorough approach.


This adviser immediately recommended a company scheme rather than a personal pension. Twelve months ago, he hinted, things might have been different. He then gave a long - and, to me, largely incomprehensible - explanation about investments, scribbling diagrams furiously. While he galloped through TESSAs, PEPs and pensions, using such unfamiliar terms as "tax-free environments" and "contracting out", I limped several paces behind. His main recommendations, though, were clear: life insurance and critical illness insurance are more important than a pension. He also recommended I make a will and, more important, make sure my husband did. Otherwise, he said, I might find my husband had another woman who'd turn up on his death claiming half the estate. (There was a diagram to illustrate this as well.) I felt I could trust this adviser, but the jargon might well frighten off the financially timid.

THE EXPERTS Amanda Davidson: Generally sound, but delivery could be better. Philippa Gee: Good explanation of reasons for joining company scheme. There should be a balance between protecting the client with insurance and a pension, rather than saying the former is more important. Roddy Kohn: Good fact-finding, correct advice on joining company scheme. Too much emphasis on insurance; the client's priority was a pension.


Although in principle I would prefer advice from an independent source, in practice this was my favourite adviser: enthusiastic, down-to-earth and, best of all, good at explaining jargon in terms that even I could understand. We disposed of the personal pension idea in a few minutes: Abbey National policy appeared to be to advise everyone who has the opportunity to join a company scheme. We moved on to a complete financial check-up, going through my monthly budget, including such nitty-gritty as the cost of a haircut. Like others, she was very keen to plug life insurance and critical illness insurance - higher priorities than a pension, according to company policy. She promised a written report, free of charge. My only criticism was that I found out at the end that Abbey National had independent financial advisers as well. Why wasn't I given the choice, when I made the appointment, between seeing someone independent and someone who was, after all, a saleswoman for company products?

THE EXPERTS Amanda Davidson: The best answer, with only one or two slip- ups. Philippa Gee: Several good points, including raising the effect on finances of only one person in the household working; details were presented in a client-friendly manner, but there should have been more of a balance in what was said about insurance schemes and pensions. Roddy Kohn: Comprehensive fact-finding by this adviser, certainly the right advice on joining a company scheme - but I disagree that insurance is a priority over a pension.


This agent, who visited me at home, was the least firm in steering me towards a company pension. It was probably the best choice, he said, but he wasn't exactly reluctant to give me details of the Scottish Amicable personal pension scheme. He used a neat little computer to show me calculations, and printed out how much I'd have to pay and what I'd get when I retired. I felt more on top of what he was doing than if he had been jabbing at a calculator and jotting down figures - perhaps, says the cynic in me, this is all part of the sales technique. The adviser didn't ask the detailed questions about my finances that others did, and focused more narrowly on pensions rather than examining my financial needs overall. More of an oil-check than the full 30,000-mile service.

THE EXPERTS Amanda Davidson: Good, covering the question of how premiums would be paid if the client left work, but missed out some important points, and used jargon - a killer when advising laypeople. Philippa Gee: Correct to advise the client to consider how long she would stay with her employer, but left out some important points. Roddy Kohn: Totally wrong on the pension. You would never lose out unless you changed jobs a lot.


Independent financial adviser

As an independent, this adviser could recommend any product, unlike the others in our test who sell only their company's wares. Some IFAs work on commission; others, like this one, charge fees. This, he said, meant his advice was truly independent. A sound principle, but I found his explanation of his bill a little vague. He did not want to discuss my company pension without seeing full details. It would be easy, he said, after all the rumpus in the press, to advise people to join the company scheme - but this would not necessarily be best for me. He suggested a further meeting with my husband, and examining both our company scheme booklets. This would cost pounds 150. I felt he made an effort to understand my outlook and tailor his advice. But I found his frequent references to my husband's views - asking, for example, if he agreed to my taking out a pension - irritating. True, talking to my husband would give a fuller picture, but as with other advisers who wanted to meet him, I wondered if they spied another prospective client with a higher salary than mine.

THE EXPERTS Amanda Davidson: Right to ask to see the company scheme booklet, but references to husband would have got my back up. Philippa Gee: Several good points, but his comment that he is "not in the business of getting people to insure themselves" is worrying; life insurance should be part of overall financial planning. Roddy Kohn: Should have advised the client to join her company's pension scheme without having to see the booklet. Correct in saying he needed to meet the husband to give specific advice. !