If SEBI’s new norms on investment advisors come into force, mutual fund sales will decline even further and mis-selling of insurance products will increase!
When UK Sinha took over as the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), small distributors were elated. As the head of Unit Trust of India, he had after all felt the impact of a series of harebrained decisions by SEBI under the previous regime relating to mutual funds (such as abolishing upfront commissions abruptly). Small distributors hoped that Mr Sinha would reverse the previous decision or at least make sure that distributors are incentivised in some way. He stunned them by coming out with a more harebrained idea-a small charge to first-time investors. Polite criticism pointed out a simple flaw-how do you define "first-time"? It was no surprise that SEBI had not thought about it. It usually doesn't.
SEBI under Mr Sinha has now a gone a step further which would create major headwinds for the fund industry, especially after an 22nd August circular which asks mutual funds to implement a segregation between an agent and an advisor. SEBI now wants to regulate investment advisors and that too through the completely failed concept of Self Regulatory Organisations (SROs). No matter that its grievance redressal system is not exactly pro-investor, no matter that there is no surveillance worth talking about and market manipulation is rampant, no matter that its consent order system allows crooks to get away, investment advisor regulation seems to be a priority for Sinha.
SEBI has just released a concept paper, which lays down how an SRO would be formed to regulate investment advisors who will be registered under SEBI. The crux of the regulation is: "No financial incentives/consideration would be received from any person other than (an) investor seeking advice". What does this innocuous-sounding rule mean?
First, distributors simply cannot provide advisory services for a commission; they will have to sell for a fee. This means that if one wants to earn a commission and not a fee (since investors don't want to pay fees) he would have to identify himself as an 'agent'. Unfortunately, this means getting a letter signed from an investor that he is buying the product out of his own free will and that the agent has not done any due diligence. Few investors are willing to give such letters. No distributor is asking for it, either.
Second, the only mainline investment product that comes under SEBI is mutual funds. Issues related to other financial products will be dealt with the respective regulators. As such, there would be no single body regulating investment advisors. Is there mis-selling of mutual funds? Well, there has to be selling first! Mutual funds are struggling to add assets-SEBI's August 2009 decision has ensured that interest in mutual funds has totally waned.
In August 2009, SEBI had banned entry load for mutual fund investments. Investors were free to decide the upfront commission to be paid to the distributor/agent, based on factors like assessment of the service of the distributor. The effect has been disastrous. From the time of the ban till August 2011, there has been huge outflow of money. SEBI simply was out of touch with reality when it assumed that investors and distributors would negotiate for the service. Even the healthiest financial services don't sell by themselves. That's the lesson from all around the world. It takes a lot of hand-holding and convincing to get someone to invest in volatile products like mutual funds. Devoid of upfront commissions, the agents simply did not want to take the trouble to sell mutual funds after August 2009. Many distributors were happy to push insurance products, which earned them higher commissions.
Under the new proposal of SEBI, this would not change. This would get aggravated. While very few people would be interested in selling mutual funds for a fee, an "investment advisor" selling only insurance products does not come under the proposed Investment Advisor Regulations. Therefore why would an existing advisor pay for a certification to become an "Investment Advisor" when he is "better off" selling ULIPs (unit-linked insurance plans) as investment products?
The media is full of stories of mis-selling of insurance products. From those nearing their retirement to 80-year-olds have been sold retirement products where they would have to pay a substantial amount for annual payment across 10 years. Sadly, even if the proposal of SEBI comes into force, such cases would continue. Incidentally, the biggest mis-sellers are large banks and SEBI's regulation will not affect them one bit.
Of course, one could argue that the intermediaries would find a way to get around these rules. That is the subject of part two of this series.