Life After the Royal Commission – Be Careful What You Wish For….

In the wake of the recommendations from the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Financial Services Industry (aka the Hayne Report), one of the four major banks announced that it would be removing bonus payments for its front line tellers. This was supposedly in line with Hayne’s proposal that performance-linked remuneration, financial incentives and sales commissions in the financial services industry need to be restructured.

Image sourced from Small Caps

This prompted a mixed reaction among the public, based on some of the comments I have read on social media. Some felt that the tellers were being made scapegoats for the banks’ bigger failings – others felt that this was an inevitable outcome from the banking backlash.

Personally, I believe the announcement is potentially just one of the many likely “unforeseen consequences” to come out of the Royal Commission – I’m not saying this particular decision is good or bad, just that we need to be aware of what’s likely to happen based on Hayne’s key recommendations. Be careful what you wish for. And, as an underlying theme to this whole debate, let’s not forget that most Australians are shareholders (directly or indirectly via their Super) of the Four Pillar Banks (one of the greatest government-endorsed and legislatively protected market oligopolies around which also helped steer us through the GFC relatively unscathed….).

So, what else might we see?

First, as with financial advice, residential mortgages will move to a “buyer pays” model. Brokers would not be able to receive commissions from mortgage providers or other intermediaries based on the products they sell, recommend or refer – instead, mortgage applicants will be expected to pay for the services of a broker, who will therefore be under an obligation to find the best product for their client. But removing trailing commissions and other conflicted remuneration may also mean that brokers could seek to earn additional fees from their mortgage clients by re-contacting them a year or so later (with permission, of course) to inform them of a better deal. (Even now, lenders are not explicitly obliged to let existing customers know if they have a newer product that may be better for them). Some estimates suggest that fee-for-service will add about $3,000 to the initial cost of applying for a mortgage. Whether this will also lead to more competition among mortgage providers (who will no longer have to pay broker commissions) is not clear.

Second, the increased focus on acting in the best interests of the customer may result in placing all financial planners, brokers, advisors, insurers, and banks (and their officers, agents and employees) under a fiduciary duty of care to their clients – even if they are not directly managing specific assets, selling a specific product or advising on specific services or financial strategies. In other words, advisors etc. will be deemed to have taken ALL of a client’s needs and circumstances into account. (This is largely the result of the miss-selling of financial products, and the charging of fees for “no service”, by banks and their retail wealth management arms.)

Third, the increased cost of compliance will disproportionately impact smaller financial institutions such as credit unions, member-owned banks and other mutual societies, who came through the Royal Commission pretty much unscathed. Those costs will need to be passed on, to customers and members. Of course, there has also been some political debate around the need for some sort of banking levy – which will ultimately be passed on to shareholders or customers (who are often the same people…).

Fourth, and related to the above, the separation of roles between those superannuation trustees who act as both fund trustees and as responsible entities of managed investment schemes will have a knock-on effect in terms of operating and compliance costs. Such dual-regulated entities will have to decide whether to focus on their trustee role, or appoint a separate and independent responsible entity in respect of the asset management.

Fifth, the higher compliance and regulatory obligations may deter or inhibit more competition – either from new market entrants from overseas, or from local start-ups. The recent restricted ADI model (aimed at enabling challenger or neo-bank brands) has not exactly seen a raft of applications, and off-shore banks tend to come and go in successive waves, largely driven by market conditions. If lending standards are further tightened, it may be less attractive for foreign firms to set up local operations. In fact, there have been calls to force some smaller superannuation funds to merge with larger funds, or exit altogether for reasons of scale and efficiency – potentially taking out some of the competition in that sector. And if mortgage brokers have to move to a fee-for-service model, it will likely force some providers to exit the industry, as happened with the FOFA reforms in financial planning and wealth management.

Sixth, at the level of corporate governance, boards of financial services providers will need to be mindful of their duty to act in the best interests of the company – which has traditionally meant the share holders – and the increased duty of care towards their customers, which may at times be at complete odds. Non-executive directors willing to serve on the boards of banks and insurers may also be harder to find, at a time when there is already a high concentration of directors who sit on multiple boards across Australia’s biggest companies. So, board diversity may be even harder to achieve, especially if non-executive directorships become subject to even greater formal qualification, to ensure board members have appropriate professional experience, industry knowledge and technical expertise, as well as financial competence and risk management skills.

Finally, all this is happening as we face something of a credit squeeze (thanks to increased lending standards and greater provisioning for risk-weighted assets) heightened economic uncertainty (slowing GDP growth, lower productivity, wage stagnation, falling property prices), and an upcoming General Election campaign during which the Hayne Report will be held up as a key reason for why “things have to change”. The irony being that, except in a few areas, the complaints aired and wrong-doing uncovered during the Royal Commission could have been addressed by the regulators and enforcement agencies via existing laws on financial services, prudential standards, and general consumer protection (unfair contract terms, unconscionable conduct, deceptive and misleading behaviour). Plus, the Australian Financial Complaints Authority (which combines the remit of the former Financial Ombudsman Service, the Credit and Investments Ombudsman and the Superannuation Complaints Tribunal) has a wide jurisdiction over consumer complaints relating to Credit, Finance and Loans, Insurance, Banking Deposits and Payments, Investments and Financial Advice, and Superannuation. And as with most External Dispute Resolution agencies, AFCA and its predecessors have an obligation to report on systemic issues within their industry.

Next week: Pitch X

The Future of Super

As I mentioned in last week’s blog on the recent Intersekt conference, there was an interesting panel discussion on Superannuation – interesting not just because of the topic, but also because it was about the only session I attended at the conference where there was some real disagreement among the speakers. Just goes to show how sensitive and contentious Super has become – and this was not even a discussion about the Royal Commission!

L to R: Peter Stanhope, Carla Harris, Greg Einfeld, Jon Holloway. Moderator Erin Taylor. (Photo sourced from Facebook)

The protagonists were Jon Holloway (Zuper), Carla Harris (Longevity App), Peter Stanhope (GIG Super) and Greg Einfeld (Plenty Wealth).

With around $2.7tn in assets under management, we were told that the Australian model for state-sponsored, privately funded retirement planning is the envy of the world. Yet we also heard that it has been so badly executed at home that we are in the midst of a huge shift in our attitudes towards this defined contribution scheme. And this is not just about disruption or technology – there are serious concerns that many Australians are not willing and/or able to set aside enough assets to provide for their retirement living; that the system is being rorted via skewed tax rules, gender-based wage disparity and expensive management fees; and that there is an overall lack of investor education, interest and engagement.

But for context, and in Super’s defence, the system has helped to make Australians a lot wealthier (along with property), and rank higher than Switzerland for median wealth. And as The Economist recently reported, for good or for bad, Super means that Australia does not have as heavy a state pension cost as most of the OECD.

Some of the issues facing the industry, as outlined by the panel include:

  • the changing definition of “ordinary Australians” (who are they? how is this even defined?)
  • the changing nature of work (the gig economy etc.)
  • the need for Open Super Data (to make choice and switching easier)
  • redefining “retirement” (given we are living longer beyond the traditional working age)
  • addressing gender imbalance in wages and contributions
  • redundant marketing imagery used by much of the Super industry
  • why the audience is under-educated and under-engaged on this topic
  • too little industry competition (although the regulator APRA is known to favour consolidation of smaller funds which are not sustainable)
  • the advice delivery channel needs to change, as does access to, and choice of, products and providers
  • the technical infrastructure is not fit for purpose for things like custody and administration (still living in the 80s?)
  • tax planning (a key rationale for how super is managed is determined by tax minimization)
  • generational change (linked to changing work patterns)

The panel discussion was followed by a fireside chat between Kerr Neilson of Platinum Asset Management, and Simon Cant of Reinventure. According to Mr Neilson, the key structural changes facing the industry are a direct result of financial planning advice becoming less profitable: no more trailing commissions (probably a good thing?); fewer advisors in the market (due to increased professional education requirements) with a resulting shift to accountants; and even robo-advice is not truly scalable. Meanwhile, for anyone watching their Super balance and returns, beware the Trump knock-on effects of trade tariffs and interest rates – this will require greater asset diversification, and robust currency risk management, to take advantage of new investment opportunities.

Next week: What they should teach at school

CoinAlts Fund Symposium, New York

Following on from last week’s theme on Blockchain, crypto and asset management, the recent CoinAlts Fund Symposium in New York brought together various parts of the fund industry to discuss issues connected to crypto investment, portfolio management and back office solutions.

Although conducted under a veil of non-attribution, it wouldn’t be betraying any confidences to describe some of the key talking points. If anything, the main themes echoed much of what I have heard at similar events over the past 6 months: scaling transaction capacity and establishing Blockchain interoperability; building industry standards for this new asset class; and creating valuation models for new token issuance projects.

In addition, the conferences addressed operational matters such as crypto fund administration, audit, custody, taxation and client reporting. All the usual back office functions that are taken for granted in other asset classes.

What was particularly noticeable about this event was the lack of international participation. In fact, a number of the speakers almost berated the audience for choosing to ignore overseas industry, market and regulatory developments at their peril.

For example, on regulation, it was suggested that if the SEC doesn’t provide some constructive guidance on new token issuance (especially so-called security tokens), the USA could be left behind. Indeed, one industry representative stated that for his company, the USA is only their third largest market. Another presenter drew attention to the fact that South Korea (a leading marketplace for Blockchain and crypto) produces 15 times as many engineers as the USA, while the USA produces 40 times as many lawyers as South Korea.

A recurring theme throughout the day was that without formal standards, clearer regulation, and institutional-strength tools and infrastructure, major asset managers, pension funds and Wall Street firms will remain very cautious about investing in digital assets, whatever their current level of interest.

Next week: Startup Exchange, Chicago