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Good intentions aren’t enough for effective financial regulation

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

The majority of Canada's provincial securities regulators recently walked away from the idea of introducing a "best-interest duty" for financial advisers. The decision quickly drew fire in the media and likely left many Canadian investors scratching their heads. Why wouldn't our regulators be in favour of legally obligating financial advisers to put their clients' interests first? After all, we hold lawyers, accountants, engineers and other professionals to similar standards. What's so different about financial advisers?

While no one can argue with the good intentions behind the notion of a statutory best-interest duty, after five years of study and deliberation, all provincial securities commissions except two (Ontario and New Brunswick) have major concerns with the introduction of a statutory best-interest standard as it's being proposed. The main concern is that applying such a standard to financial advisers is simply unworkable within the current regulatory framework and will do little to protect consumers.

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The unfortunate reality is that our system of financial regulations is broken and out of date, with glaring gaps that fail to ensure the competence and proficiency of all those who hold themselves out as financial advisers across the country. Unless these pressing issues are addressed first, instituting a statutory best-interest duty for financial advisers would only make matters worse by giving Canadian investors nothing more than false assurance.

For instance, anyone in Canada can call themselves a financial adviser – irrespective of their credentials, training or experience. In the absence of adequate legal protection for "financial adviser" and similar titles, Canadians are at significant risk of entrusting their hard-earned savings to unqualified or unscrupulous individuals misrepresenting themselves as real advisers.

Our financial regulations have also failed to keep up with the evolving, holistic role financial advisers play in the marketplace. Today, most Canadians look to their advisers for more than just one category of financial product or service, from mutual funds and other securities to insurance.

But, with different regulators overseeing the sale of different kinds of financial products, there is no effective industry-wide oversight or disciplinary process. As a result, there is nothing to stop a financial adviser who is stripped of their registration to sell mutual funds from continuing to provide advice and selling segregated funds through an insurance licence.

There is also no single registry or database where an investor can go to verify their adviser's credentials and disciplinary history. And, due to a lack of consistent continuing-education requirements across products and jurisdictions, investors have little assurance that their adviser's knowledge is being kept current.

If we want to hold financial advisers to the same standards of care as other professionals who provide essential advice, we must oversee them in the same ways. There is no other occupation, whether law, medicine or accounting, whose members are subject to a best-interest duty but are not accorded professional standing and required to be accredited by a governing professional body, such as the Law Society, the College of Physicians and Surgeons or the association of Chartered Professional Accountants.

For Canadians to have confidence that their financial advisers are truly working in their best interests, the time has come to legally recognize the provision of financial advice as a professional activity.

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All financial advisers should belong to a professional regulatory organization. They should be required to adhere to a common code of professional and ethical conduct that puts investors' interests first, mandatory professional liability insurance and ongoing continuing education, and be subject to a disciplinary process that protects the public and deters misconduct.

At Advocis, we believe that Canadians deserve financial advice from someone they can trust. That's why all Advocis members voluntarily adhere to a code of professional conduct, which includes a best-interest duty.

It's time that financial advisers formally belong to a profession. Then, and only then, can we ensure that all financial advisers are truly serving the best interests of Canadians.

Video: Money Monitor: What your financial adviser’s qualifications mean (The Canadian Press)
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