Adviser code not credible, critics claim

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The Independent Online
BY IMPOSING a strict training and competence regime on its membership from 1 October, the Personal Investment Authority (PIA) - the public's financial services watchdog - is convinced that, coupled with disclosure of commission and other charges, it has taken a big stride towards preventing the kind of abuses that led to more than half a million people with personal pensions becoming victims of bad investment advice or administrative bungling.

But many in the industry believe the PIA's Training & Competence Scheme Rules & Guidance (TCSRG) is just another costly layer of bureaucracy that will do little to improve what is already in place and even less to protect the public.

Furthermore, it is held that a significant change is taking place in the selling of financial products by small to medium-sized independent financial advisers, given the growing sophistication and complexity of such products. There is a rapidly widening belief that for some firms to be truly competent in the financial services arena, it will be necessary for them to concentrate on particular sector niches. Almost inevitably, this will require a higher level of specalised qualifications.

Bob Woods, of Leicester-based Mattioli Woods Pension Consultants, says the skills required by his advisers are "detailed understanding of pension legislation and regulation, complemented by a knowledge of the investment products suitable for pension fund investment".

Mattioli Woods' policy is to employ people already having the APMI (Associate of the Pension Management Institute) qualification or, if not, to require them to pass the nine exams needed to achieve this professional qualification. The consultancy also carries out its own regular training sessions.

Mattioli Woods subcontracts all investment work to professional fund managers if the client's requirements or wishes involve any significant degree of investment risk - again taking the view that it is not possible to be a "jack-of-all-trades".

Mr Woods points out that the only professional qualification required by the PIA is the Financial Planning Certificate (FPC), which "involves three relatively short courses, designed to encompass almost every aspect of the financial services business, and only three exams - the first two of which are largely based on multiple-choice questions. The FPC is therefore superficial and largely inappropriate to those organisations operating in a niche market."

He says: "The industry continues to lack a truly credible professional qualification of the same status as the PMI, let alone the chartered accountant's or lawyer's equivalent. Professional qualifications of a high standard and specific to the financial product being offered must be introduced.

"I do not believe that any individual can truly be expert in all four principal areas - pensions, insurance, mortgages and investment. And yet this is apparently what our regulators would have the public believe."

A similar argument is put forward by Frank Eve, sales and marketing director of the Dorking-based Mortgage Trust, now part of the First National Building Society of Dublin.

He says: "The sheer complexity of today's mortgage market means that most borrowers lack the knowledge or experience to make a decision with much confidence when faced with such a wide array of mortgage offers. They need specialist help and guidance, and they need it from mortgage professionals whose integrity and ability has been throughly checked and tested."

Principals in the financial services industry tend to have far more resources than the IFAs and to do their training in-house. National Westminster Bank and the Prudential argue that it would be difficult to better their in-house training and competence operations.

The vast majority of NatWest's advisers are recruited internally. Each trainee undergoes a programme that normally requires six months to achieve threshold competence. During this period the trainees study for a variety of core and product knowledge tests. Once these have been passed, their overall level of competence and compliance is formally assessed in supervised interviews.

From 1 October, NatWest expects this training programme to include a requirement to pass FPC. As part of its ongoing training strategy, NatWest will be reviewing this assessment programme to ensure it meets the requirements of the TCSRG.

However, it has no plans to contract out any part of its training programme or to rely on a basic national standard.

The Prudential is equally proud of its training and competence scheme, on which it spends more than £15m a year in sending 2,000 of its staff through its purpose-built National Sales Training Centre (NSTC) at Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire.

Karen Watts, Prudential's spokeswoman, says: "Our rigorous training, knowledge and competence standards include a core curriculum covering knowledge of products and skills, structured on-the-job and continuous training, assessment and supervisory requirements."

In March last year, Norwich Union shook the industry when it decided temporarily to suspend 600 of its direct sales force so they could be retrained and tested to a much higher standard than that which prevailed.

The new training programme is divided into three key areas with externally accredited testing for each one. The chartered accountants, Ernst Young, and the sector regulator, Lautro, act as independent quality controllers. However, the qualifications and training remain essentially in-house programmes.

Richard Mathers, Norwich's training and development manager, says: "We moved from a commission-only basis to a salaried sales force with a much higher ratio of managers to direct sales representatives: originally one to 15, now one to 8.

"We have also halved the size of the operation from the original 600 to 300 company representatives, including those of appointed brokers."