When regulation buck stops with consumer

In Saudi Arabia, a wallet lost in the street is routinely returned to its owner, contents intact.

In Saudi Arabia, a wallet lost in the street is routinely returned to its owner, contents intact. The crime rate is low, theft being somewhat discouraged by the spectre of people's fingers dangling from bits of string in the town square.

In the financial arena in Australia, however, it is the victim rather than the perpetrator who is increasingly at fault. That is why we continue to roll out the "investor education" solution.

For the swindler, our "disclosure" regime is a thing of beauty. As long as - as stipulated in sub-clause 3(C), section F of the material contracts notes in the product disclosure statement - it is disclosed that your savings may be channelled to an entity in the Cayman Islands via a related party of the scheme promoter in Hong Kong, then the scheme is compliant.

Disclosure doth make fools of us all.

The thing, according to the policy classes, is that the public is not educated enough. And this is why there is an undeniable policy sway, away from simply busting crooks and penalising breaches, to flooding the world with pamphlets and seminars. Education is cheap and easy while prosecution is expensive.

Have you heard of the Commonwealth Financial Counselling program? How about the joint Australian Financial Counselling and Credit Reform Association? Does Financial Counselling Australia ring a bell?

You must have heard of the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network standing committee on consumer affairs? The ASIC consumer advisory panel?

How about the Helping Our Kids Understand Finances - Professional Learning and MoneySmart Schools?

Er ... the Commonwealth Consumer Affairs Advisory Council perchance? The National Financial Literacy Strategy?

Well, you paid for it all, sometimes at $5000 a pop for a country-town seminar by an investment guru to a crowd of eight.

In creating compulsory super, the government not only spawned a fat ecosystem of financial intermediaries, but a policy and consumer protection elite, too.

If you look up the directors and executives on the aforementioned gravy train of initials you will find the same names bob up time and again, and often cross over into industry peak-body-land. Take the Financial Ombudsman Service, for instance.

No doubt these people are worthy and in most cases dedicated. But the whole approach is wrong. It is simply the government passing the regulation buck to the poor old consumer. Even sophisticated investors get dudded.

The latest initiative in consumer education and advocacy is the Choice Superannuation Consumer Centre proposal, billed by the ABC's 7.30 as the "new super watchdog". Canberra has committed $10 million to Choice to set up a company and Choice has committed to match it with $10 million from industry.

Choice was coy on who might be involved, but in a clip on 7.30 showed former Macquarie Bank chief Allan Moss, former ASIC chairman turned liquidator Tony D'Aloisio and former Victorian premier Steve Bracks were somehow in the mix.

We surely can look forward to more reams of strategy, and long hours of workshops complemented by forums, vision statements and media releases.

Regulation by pamphlets is how consumer advocate Denise Brailey describes it. Ms Brailey, with nary a donation from the public purse, has worked her day job for years and looked after thousands of victims of financial fraud in her spare time.

Apparently, the mission of the new super centre is not only to further educate the masses but to provide policy and "advocacy". This means saying "good product/bad product", in which case they will be in need of a few lawyers, not to mention forensic types who can figure out the Byzantine financial engineering behind newfangled derivative products. Even if they got that right, and had the intestinal fortitude to call a product a ripoff, what of the conflict of interest in an industry-funded advisory service?

We saw the kerfuffle on Thursday over freedom-of-information revelations that the government stripped out $500 million in dividends from the Reserve Bank, against the advice of governor Glenn Stevens. It is worth contemplating, too, that ASIC is a colossal cash cow for Canberra and, whoever the Sir Humphrey Appleby is down there, his advice would be: "Yes, minister, we earn billions from the regulators. They fund the needy, not to mention our most urgent budgetary needs. Investor education is by far the most efficient weapon in our crusade against white-collar crime ... it only costs us a few million, minister."

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