Three financial system flaws David Murray can’t ignore

Conflicts abound in Australia’s financial system. Dan Peled/AAP

At the current frequency of financial system inquiries (Campbell 1982, Wallis 1997, Murray 2014) there will not be another until 2030. That makes this week’s interim report from David Murray all the more critical.

By far the biggest problem with Australia’s financial system is the retirement savings system. Its fundamentally flawed structure is damaging the welfare of millions of Australian households.

There are three closely related problems. First, Australia’s retirement system forces households to make complex decisions that most households are not well placed to make.

Households in Australia have more freedom in managing their retirement savings than in any other developed country. That freedom would be terrific if it was matched by a world-leading level of financial literacy, but it is not. So the putative freedom is really more a burden to the majority of households who cannot navigate a complicated system without help from advisers.

The second problem is the poor quality of financial advice provided to households. The certification required to be employed as a financial adviser is an RG146. A person of average ability takes a few weeks to meet the RG146 requirements. That is, with a few weeks’ training almost anyone can be employed in a financial advisory group and advise households on their lifetime savings.

The knowledge hurdle for financial adviser certification is not low because the requisite knowledge is small. It is low because of political pressure not to make it too high. In the 1980s and 1990s the life insurance sales sector morphed into the financial advice sector. Financial advice deals with much more complicated questions than insurance but the sector was able to resist regulation that would force its members to be properly trained.

Lobbyists have won

To this day the financial advisory firms have successfully resisted attempts to raise the bar on the expertise required by their employees to provide financial advice. Because most financial advisers are so poorly trained they cannot provide quality advice solutions to the problems of their clients. Most financial advisory firms simply have a set of cookie-cutter solutions for clients and the financial adviser’s job is to decide which cookie cutter goes with which client.

The third problem is by the far the most important. Most financial advisers have a substantial conflict of interest – the interests of their employer are at odds with the interests of their clients.

To make the point imagine the following situation. Your doctor is an employee of the Acme Drug Company. Acme has a suite of drugs covering many but not all medical conditions. For some conditions the Acme drug is the best, but for many conditions there are better drugs.

You pay for medical advice by the hour, but your doctor is paid by Acme. Your doctor can prescribe whichever drug she chooses, but her compensation depends on the volume of Acme drugs she prescribes, not other drugs.

Even though the medical profession has a well-deserved reputation for putting patients first, drug companies are not allowed to own medical practices. It is obvious that vertical integration in the medical system, where drug companies employed doctors, would corrupt the system. Sadly, this is exactly the situation we have in the retirement savings sector in Australia.

Conflicts remain

Over 80% of financial advisers work for firms that are either directly owned by, or very closely affiliated with, firms that provide a suite of financial management products. When a household goes to a financial advisory firm they will most likely be talking to a financial adviser who works for a firm that is vertically integrated with a provider of financial products. The financial adviser may or may not be free to select whichever financial products he chooses for the client’s solution, but he will only be compensated for recommending his own product provider (investment management firm).

This obvious conflict of interest is leading to dreadful outcomes in Australia. Households are being put into retail funds when they would be better off in industry funds. They are being put into very high-fee investment products when low-fee products would deliver the same expected returns before fees. They are being encouraged to borrow money to invest, to be underdiversified, to make the wrong decisions all around.

The financial system inquiry should address each of these three problems. First, it should recommend the federal government implement a long-term program of public education about fundamental ideas in retirement savings: save while you are young, don’t put all your eggs in one basket, and get a second opinion from an adviser who is certified as independent.

Second, it should insist on a proper level of training for all financial advisers.

Third, it should insist that financial advisers cannot be affiliated with financial product providers in any way – using the medical sector as its template.

The missing institution

There is another retirement savings problem that is of first order importance but unrelated to financial advice. Elderly households need a way of releasing the equity in their homes without the uncertainty that they will lose control of their residence.

The largest form of saving that most Australian households undertake over their lifetimes is that they buy homes that appreciate in value. The equity that Australian households have in residential real estate (value minus debt) is about A$2.8 trillion. That is nearly twice the A$1.6 trillion that Australian households have in retirement savings. Yet, there is no direct connection between these great pools of value.

There is a missing institution in the Australian financial system. What is needed is a financial organisation that will allow Australian households to borrow against their homes without any fear of losing control of the home and at an interest rate close to government treasury rates.

There are reverse mortgage products in the market. But those products are too expensive and poorly structured for most households. Releasing the equity in the homes of retirees is essential for solving the fiscal problems of the ageing of the Australian population.