Ethical investment: Advice on getting the right adviser

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The Independent Online
GETTING GOOD independent financial advice is not always easy. But ethically minded investors face the added problem of finding an adviser with knowledge of, and a real commitment to, ethical financial products.

Some Independent Financial Advisers (IFAs) have been offering this service longer than others. Many more now see it as an opportunity to attract new clients.

Lee Coates of the Ethical Investors Group says: "Everyone wants to get on the bandwagon, which is seems very opportunistic for those of us who have been doing it longest out of a sense that it is morally right."

The main reason for this has been rapid growth in the value of the ethical sector which attracts new money at a far higher rate than the non-ethical alternatives. The value of ethical funds has gone from about pounds 700m in 1994, to over pounds 2bn today, with more than 150,000 investors.

This figure is expected to double over the next couple of years, and with the majority of advisers remunerated by commission it makes the sector potentially very lucrative. Meanwhile, the rules governing the terms under which IFAs can give financial advice require them to "know a client's circumstances" and to ask explicit questions about their attitude to matters like investment risk and return. These must be recorded in a written "fact find" which should then allow the adviser to give "best advice" most appropriate to a client's circumstances.

But they do not require advisers to ask about a client's attitude to ethical and ecological issues,or to point out that there are financial products designed with these in mind.

"This is a delicate issue," explains Richard Hunter of IFA Holden Meehan. "Any adviser who is serious about the ethical option will raise it when completing a fact find. But delicacy is required because we don't have the right to make a potential client feel guilty about not taking the ethical option.

"I always ask whether they wish to pursue either an ethical environmental option or to invest along conventional lines. If they then choose the ethical option we sit down to discuss in detail a whole range of issues.

"The important thing at this stage is to match up as closely as possible those areas which the client wishes to support or avoid to the actual investment funds available."

Labour MP for Putney in London, Tony Colman, would like asking "the ethical question" to be added to IFAs' "fact finds". He presented a Bill to the House of Commons on 18 November last year with a clause intended to oblige IFAs to determine their client's views on the "likely ethical, social or environmental impact of an investment".

"My Bill has fallen," explains Mr Colman, "but we are lobbying hard for its essential content to be added to other legislation now going through Parliament.

"Patricia Hewitt is sympathetic to the idea of change in this direction. She must, of course, also make a judgement about any practical difficulties involved in implementing such changes. I am also lobbying the Financial Services Authority on the issue; is it possible that they might consider some voluntary change?"

Mr Colman thinks that the key obstacles to reform "are entrenched attitudes and an often bunker mentality particularly among middle management in large firms.

"These people often feel that they must prove how valuable they are to their employers by concentrating solely on making money for their firms. If big players in the industry - including insurance companies - showed some vision we could get positive change very fast."

Until this happens the Ethical Investment Research Service (EIRIS) has a list of IFAs giving ethical advice. This numbers only 70 out of around 3,500 UK firms with IFA status. The good news, according to EIRIS's Karen Eldridge is that although the number of firms is small they give nationwide coverage.

Ring EIRIS on 0845-606 0324 for a free copy of their list of "ethical" IFAs.