What is a financial adviser?

2014-05-12 08:00

Not all financial planners are equal, writes Maya Fisher-French

Last weekend, I spent my time searching for elusive pieces of paper and trawling my inbox for financial statements.

It was a partly frustrating, partly liberating experience as the aim was to get all our family’s financial paperwork together so our financial planner could provide us with a full financial assessment.

It was a sobering exercise realising how disorganised we had become over the past few years.

Having moved house three years ago, much of our information was still in boxes and we were certainly not as organised as we thought we were.

It was also an interesting exercise as our financial planner asked a lot of questions about the future. When were we planning to replace our cars? What are our retirement goals? For how much longer would we be supporting our children?

I am now awaiting his verdict and report, and looking forward to seeing our personal financial plan.

This financial planning experience is in sharp contrast to one a colleague recently experienced when he asked me to look at his retirement annuity.

I suggested he contact his financial adviser and ask a few questions about the tax efficiency of his current contributions. The financial adviser’s response was: “How much do you earn and how much do you contribute to your company pension fund?”

How on earth does this man claim to be my colleague’s adviser when he doesn’t even know how much he earns or what he is saving for retirement?

How could he possibly give any decent advice without this information? Yet each month he earns commission off the product he sold years ago.

I mentioned this experience to Godfrey Nti, the head of the Financial Planning Institute, during an interview recently and he said: “Not everyone who calls themselves a financial adviser really is one. Often, they are nothing more than a policy seller. A real financial adviser is someone who gives good-quality advice; he doesn’t just sell policies.”

The Financial Planning Institute has been working hard to change the perception of financial advisers from being product pushers towards being recognised as professionals who provide advice worth paying for.

The institute has continuously called for a separation between fees for advice and sales commission, as well as a professionalisation of the financial advice industry.

In order to belong to the institute as a certified financial planner, an adviser has to have a postgraduate diploma in financial planning, pass a rigorous professional competency examination, obtain three years of practical experience, as well as pass a criminal and financial background check, all of which can take up to eight years to complete.

With that level of commitment, the adviser plans on being in the industry for a long time and will be looking to build a sustainable business, one built on meaningful relationships, not just one-off sales.

The institute also has a disciplinary process for its members if a client raises a complaint that is based on peer review. Nti says this is taken very seriously and in fact the institute is currently fighting one of its members in the Supreme Court of Appeal.

Nti says while there are laws to protect clients, such as the Financial Advisory and Intermediary Services Act, these are still not sufficient and an adviser can tick off all the requirements under the act and still give bad advice. Sadly, many examples abound.

“At the institute, we don’t look just at whether the client signed the form or not, we look at the reasonableness of the situation and whether the adviser acted in the best interest of the client. It may be that we find the adviser could have done more,” says Nti.

If you want to know if your adviser is really focused on giving good advice, see if he or she has the following attributes:

.?They start by finding out about you rather than explaining their products;

.?They will ask you about your financial goals or dreams, both short term and long term;

.?They will look at your overall financial situation, including your budget and your debt repayments;

.?They may recommend you pay off your short-term debt before starting to invest;

.?They have an ongoing relationship and regularly communicate with you;

.?They have been recommended by friends and family. Recommendations show your adviser is good at maintaining relationships; and

.?They belong to a professional body like the Financial Planning Institute.

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