Senate banks inquiry may not fix advice malaise

UBS says banks look attractive relative to the broader market. Photo: Karl Hilzinger

Queensland businessman John Belling is suing Westpac for misleading and deceptive conduct after the bank slotted him into highly leveraged financial products and blew up $4 million in savings.

Grazier and businessman Raymond “Curly” Tatnell is also suing Westpac and Macquarie Group for investing his savings in structured products. He lost $3 million. Like Belling, Tatnell was advised by local bank manager David Ross to seek investment advice from Westpac Financial Services.

As bank bosses prepare to face a Senate inquiry into their respective financial advice disasters on Tuesday, the bank lobby has gone into overdrive to fend off suggestions there is a systemic problem with financial planning in Australia. Until now, Westpac has been unscathed, overshadowed by scandals at Commonwealth Bank, National Australia Bank, Macquarie Group, and more lately ANZ.

Indeed, Westpac seems to have a superior record to its peers when it comes to the business of blowing up people’s life savings.

The Belling and Tatnell cases, however, are further evidence of a systemic problem in financial advice. For a start, they are not isolated. Other customers have been lured into leveraged financial products they don’t understand and lost their savings but don’t have the means to sue.

Commissions lie at the heart of the problem with financial advice. Bankers are richly rewarded for selling complex structured products. A former Macquarie banker with knowledge of the MQ Gateway product sold to Curly Tatnell estimated that, in selling the farmer a $12.5 million “Structured Product Investment Loan facility” and a “Capitalised Interest Assistance Loan”, the Westpac salesmen stood to make $543,000 in advance fees and trailing commissions from Macquarie.

With these kinds of bucks at stake, the temptation for financial planners to act in the interests of their hip pockets rather than in the interests of their clients often proves irresistible.

Westpac’s general manager of bank financial planning at BT Financial Group, Mike Chesworth, said in a statement that the bank took its financial advice very seriously.

“As stated in our published ‘advice commitment,’ if we get it wrong we put things back on track. That promise is without exception and may involve compensation,” he said.

“Because these matters are subject to legal proceedings, we cannot disclose the specifics of the advice provided to Mr Tatnell and Mr and Mrs Belling.

“The concerns raised by Mr Tatnell and Mr and Mrs Belling are unique to their circumstances and we continue to work diligently to resolve both matters. We do not believe these represent a broader issue for us.”

How isolated are these cases really? Besides these two cases now before the courts, Westpac was ordered by a court last week to compensate another client, Sunshine Coast mayor Mark Jamieson, almost $1 million for losses incurred in Macquarie’s MQ Gateway product.

Like Tatnell and Belling, Jamieson had been encouraged to take out large loans to invest in complex synthetic products. Same pattern: high leverage, high commissions, complicated financially engineered products, heavy losses.

All three men have the money to take the bank to court. How many other victims are there who could not afford to drag a big bank through the courts? And bear in mind this is the bank with the best record when it comes to financial advice scandals.

ANZ, Macquarie, CBA and NAB bosses face the Senate inquiry on Tuesday, not Westpac. The entire industry, however, is beset by the same conflicts of interests. Bankers who sell a lot of leveraged products are handsomely rewarded.

David Ross, the local Westpac bank manager at Gympie who passed Tatnell, Belling and other clients on to its financial planning division, tragically died before his 50th birthday in 2010.

Ross was posthumously entered into the Westpac Bank Hall of Fame and was awarded the bank’s Alfred Davidson Award. Ross referred his clients to a Westpac financial planner. The planner no longer works at Westpac but is believed to be helping the bank with its defence in the Belling and Tatnell cases.

The essence of both claims is that despite being wealthy men, Belling and Tatnell were not sophisticated investors, yet Westpac put them into loans they could not service and products they did not understand.

Despite the circuitous mish-mash of loans and synthetic financial products, Curly Tatnell was told his investment was a “no-brainer”. The real “no-brainer” is that there is a systemic problem in the financial advice industry. A Senate inquiry, crammed into one afternoon, may shed further light on things but is unlikely to solve the problem.