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The Globe and Mail

Canadians deserve financial advice from true professionals

Greg Pollock is president and CEO of Advocis, The Financial Advisors Association of Canada.

Imagine a world where anyone could call themselves a doctor, lawyer or accountant, irrespective of their education, training or accreditation from a governing professional body. The risks to the public would be unfathomable. And yet, in every province except Quebec, that's the reality when it comes to another occupation entrusted to serve the best interests of Canadians: financial advisers.

For years, government, industry and consumer groups have recognized the need to modernize the way we regulate financial advisers to improve investor protection. We've had countless consultations, research studies, expert reports and recommendations. There have also been several strong reforms put in place along the way.

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Unfortunately, despite all those efforts, current regulations still fall short of ensuring the competence and integrity of all financial advisers operating across Canada. That's because the provision of financial advice is not legally recognized as a professional activity and is not afforded any title protection whatsoever. This puts the public at considerable risk, not only of receiving questionable financial advice, but also of falling victim to fraudsters posing as legitimate advisers.

As one might expect, Canadians are largely unaware of these regulatory gaps, making them even more vulnerable. In a recent online survey of 1,500 Canadians commissioned by Advocis, a full 90 per cent said they consider financial advisers to be professionals. And, when asked about the requirements to practice as a financial adviser, 67 per cent believe advisers must adhere to a code of professional and ethical conduct.

The stark disconnect between Canadians' perceptions and reality is rooted in our outdated approach to regulation. Today, most of us turn to our advisers for holistic professional advice, rather than for just one kind of financial product or service. Yet, the regulatory framework remains fragmented, with different regulators overseeing the sale of different categories of financial products, from insurance to mutual funds and other securities.

And the complexities of the system cause more issues than inadequate title protection. With so many regulators involved, there is no effective industry-wide oversight or disciplinary process to ensure the accountability of financial advisers. For example, even if an adviser has their mutual-fund registration revoked by the Mutual Fund Dealers Association, there is nothing to prevent them from continuing to provide advice, and sell segregated funds through an insurance licence. What's more, there is little assurance that an adviser's knowledge is being kept up to date. Requirements for continuing education vary widely by product and even by province, and in some cases there are no requirements for continuing education at all.

So, while Canadians expect financial advisers to be professionals, current regulations set the bar lower, treating advisers as little more than salespeople. That's why a new regulatory model is needed, one that aligns with the changing needs and expectations of the market and reflects the increasing importance of trustworthy financial advice.

At a time when household debt is sitting at record levels and less than a third of the population can count on an employer pension for retirement, sound advice is more important than ever, especially since financial products are only growing more complex. Meanwhile, independent research has proven that those of us who work with a financial adviser accumulate almost four times more wealth than those who don't.

Other countries are taking steps to ensure their regulations reflect the trusted professional role advisers play. Earlier this year, Australia moved forward with professionalization and established the Financial Adviser Standards and Ethics Authority. This industry-funded self-regulatory body has broad responsibilities for governing the conduct of professionals in the financial advice sector. Its functions include setting mandatory educational and training requirements, approving and administering a mandatory exam, creating a code of ethics that all advisers will be required to adhere to, and determining continuing professional development requirements.

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The time has come to oversee financial advisers as we do doctors, lawyers, accountants and all other professionals who provide essential advice to Canadians. Every financial adviser should belong to a governing body and be subject to common standards of professional and ethical conduct, compulsory professional liability insurance, ongoing education requirements, and a disciplinary process with the authority to suspend an adviser who has wronged an investor.

Canadians should expect nothing less, because they deserve to know that their financial security is in the hands of true professionals.

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