Australia’s government is promising action to restore confidence in the financial industry, following a Royal Commission inquiry, which found widespread misconduct by the industry at the expense of customers.
The Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry published its final report today, which sets out a series of 76 recommendations for reform to address the pervasive exploitation of the industry’s customers.
“Saying sorry and promising not to do it again has not prevented recurrence. The time has come to decide what is to be done in response to what has happened,” the report says, in setting out a series of recommendations that aim to bolster consumer protections; increase accountability and governance standards; enhance the effectiveness of regulators; and improve access to remediation for victims of industry misconduct.
Read: The (potential) future of advice reforms, for more background on Australian reform
Among other things, the report points to compensation schemes that solely reward sales, the lack of best interest standards, and an absence of accountability for misconduct as some of the core issues identified in the review.
“Rewarding misconduct is wrong. Yet incentive, bonus and commission schemes throughout the financial services industry have measured sales and profit, but not compliance with the law and proper standards,” the report says.
It points out that customers have little to no ability to negotiate the terms of transactions with the industry, due to the huge imbalance in market power and knowledge. The report also highlights the prevalence of conflicts of interest. “The interests of client, intermediary and provider of a product or service are not only different, they are opposed,” it says. “An intermediary who seeks to ‘stand in more than one canoe’ cannot.”
Moreover, it says that efforts to manage those conflicts invariably fail. “[E]xperience shows that conflicts between duty and interest can seldom be managed; self-interest will almost always trump duty,” it says, adding that it heard evidence that conflicts are almost always resolved in favour of the industry, and against clients’ interests.
Additionally, when industry firms violate the law, they are not properly held accountable, the report concludes. “Misconduct will be deterred only if entities believe that misconduct will be detected, denounced and justly punished. Misconduct, especially misconduct that yields profit, is not deterred by requiring those who are found to have done wrong to do no more than pay compensation. And wrongdoing is not denounced by issuing a media release,” it says.
In response to the report, Australia’s treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, pledged that the government will take action on all of the report’s recommendations.
“In outlining the government’s response to the Royal Commission, the government’s principal focus is on restoring trust in our financial system and delivering better consumer outcomes, while maintaining the flow of credit and continuing to promote competition,” he said.
The report follows 68 days of public hearings and more than 10,000 public submissions into financial industry conduct.
“My message to the financial sector is that misconduct must end and the interests of consumers must now come first. From today the sector must change, and change forever,” Frydenberg added.
To test whether that happens, the government also pledged to launch an independent inquiry in three years to assess whether industry practices have changed following the Royal Commission and are producing better consumer outcomes.
Australia has been undergoing a series of reforms known as the “Future of Financial Advice reforms” since 2012. Associated legislation has banned “conflicted forms of remuneration,” a.k.a. trailers; imposed a best interest duty; and expanded fee disclosure requirements. As of Jan. 1, 2019, Australian advisers must meet minimum educational requirements in order to provide advice.