Treasurer Wayne Swan and would-be Treasurer Joe Hockey have been mouthing platitudes for months now about how to stop banks taking advantage of borrowers but they have not shown much concern at how those very same banks treat people who invest with them. These days clipping the ticket on funds they manage for people provides a major part of bank income. They are very much in the financial management business but if the experience of superannuation is anything to go by the fees and charges for advice will be frighteningly high.

The German Government certainly thinks that is the case with its banks.

German Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner plans to tighten controls on financial advisors selling shares and other investment products. “In the future, undercover investigators will be deployed by the government – and they won’t only be checking general terms and conditions,” Aigner said in an interview this week.

Rather than simply inspecting the fine print of contracts, investigators posing as potential customers would be able to assess whether financial advisors provide transparent explanations of the products they are selling Radio Deutsche Welle reports.

Many private investors in Germany who lost a chunk of their personal wealth in the financial crisis complain they were insufficiently warned of the risks attached to their investments.

Financial advisors, they charge, like to sell high-risk investments not only because of the high commissions they collect but also because of the healthy margins they generate for their bank employers.

Aigner envisions a state-run control program to complement “mystery shopper” tests already conducted by the independent German consumer research foundation, Stiftung Warentest. The foundation conducts spot checks of products and services – including investment advice provided by banks and other financial institutions – and publishes the results.

In July, it released the results of a test of financial advice offered by 21 banks. Six banks failed and not one received the rating “good” or “very good.”

But the problem with the Stiftung Warentest’s program, Aigner said, is that because informants can’t be identified, banks frequently question the validity of its findings.

By launching a state-run program, the minister hopes to keep financial advisors on their best behavior.

“Laws only help when someone ensures that they are enforced,” she said.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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