Know what you're paying for

Reforms of the financial services industry are designed to offer protection but asking the right questions can be a more effective strategy for consumers.

Reforms of the financial services industry are designed to offer protection but asking the right questions can be a more effective strategy for consumers.

IF YOU use a financial planner, or are thinking about seeking one out, you should be aware that the way they are being remunerated is in the process of being changed.

Not everybody wants - or even needs - financial advice but if you do want it, you want to make sure you're not paying something for nothing. In the past, some advisers got into the practice of recommending products based on the commission they would receive. What the ...?

Well, financial planners, depending on the company they work for, often have a list of recommended products from which to suggest investments for you.

Of course they're supposed to suggest products that are appropriate to your circumstances and the level of risk you are comfortable with.

Unfortunately, some of them recommend products based on how much commission the fund manager that manages the product is prepared to pay them.

Even if a financial planner sets out to provide the best advice possible, it can be hard not to be swayed by these remuneration structures. If two products looked almost identical except for the commission an adviser could receive on recommending one, which one do you think they would suggest?

The Financial Planning Association (FPA) is the largest member association for financial planners and has long been advocating better professional standards among its members. But the Future of Financial Advice (FoFA) reforms, which are very close to being passed through parliament for the final time, are also new regulations designed to remove the conflicted remuneration structures in the industry.

Last week, the Minister for Financial Services and Superannuation, Bill Shorten, announced a quasi-extension for the implementation of these reforms. Although not yet through parliament, they were scheduled to be introduced from July 1 this year. They will now be mandatory from July 1 next year, with participation from July this year voluntary.

One of the key parts of the reforms is the introduction of an "opt-in" requirement. Under this requirement retail clients will need to agree with their adviser to ongoing fees every two years.

This is to stop advisers receiving commissions on products for clients they don't see on a regular basis, or even see at all. Although not common practice, if you only saw a financial planner once and invested in the products they suggested, that adviser could continue to receive a commission on that product as long as you held it, even if you never saw them again.

The FPA has lobbied long and hard for the removal of the opt-in requirement. They have been focusing independently on introducing a "best-interest duty" among their planners and the banning of commissions on investments.

"Taken together, these render the opt-in policy redundant and exposes consumers to unnecessary risk," the chief executive of the FPA , Mark Rantall, says.

The FPA has been on the front foot in the removal of commissions and the improved professionalism of the industry. From July 1 next year, all FPA members will be required to have a degree before acceptance as an associate financial planner. But the FPA can't guarantee the professionalism of the entire industry. Arguably, the only way that conflicted remuneration structures will be reduced is by law.

Other reforms that are part of FoFA include: a ban on upfront and trailing commissions on group risk within superannuation a ban on any form of payments relating to volume or sales targets from financial services businesses to dealer groups a ban on soft dollar benefits of $300 or more and it is also considering restricting the term "financial planner/adviser".

The "opt-in" is just one part of the reforms but, as you can see, an important one. The alternative to paying for advice via commissions on your investments is a fee-for-service that can be a fixed dollar amount, or an hourly amount.

But these fees can be quite expensive - $1000 for a couple of consultations a year is not exceptional and possibly cheap - so commissions can provide an avenue to pay for advice that you might not normally have.

The important thing is, of course, to be aware of what you're paying for and to ensure that you are getting value for your dollar.

So if you do seek out a financial planner, don't leave the room without a full understanding of how they are being paid. If you don't understand, go somewhere else.

From July 1 this year you might also seek out early adopters of the FoFA reforms. There will be some and they will probably be financial advisers or groups that were already offering appropriate advice in the best interests of their clients to start with.

Follow this writer on Twitter @Money_PennyP

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