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Farrow&#39s view

I doubt there were too many tears shed when it emerged that David M Aaron had been banned by the FSA for misselling precipice bonds.

The personal finance press gets a great deal of criticism from the financial services industry for over-egging stories and scaremongering but on the subject of precipice bonds I think we can say we got it right.

National newspapers have been awash with warnings about these risky products for several years now. Unfortunately, the warnings probably came too late to prevent many people from losing thousands of pounds. But without the coverage, hundreds would have been unaware that they may have been missold to in the first place and were due compensation.

Most money sections had a field day with David Aaron. Glamorous lifestyles make for colourful copy and Aaron with his Bentley, mansion and tales of lavish lunches did not disappoint. I, too, was due to have one of those lunches with the man himself in the Picasso Room at London&#39s L&#39Escargot restaurant a few years ago but, alas, I was stood up at the last minute.

The precipice bond scandal has been tragic. The lure of high levels of income during a time of low interest rates was just too easy a story to sell for banks and many adviser firms, be they independent or execution-only advisers.

The vast majority of Sunday Telegraph readers I have talked to, or received letters from, bought precipice bonds because they thought their capital was safe. This is not, perhaps, a surprising assumption given the liberal use of the word guaranteed on promotional literature.

In the week following the Aaron ban, I came across a comment from a financial adviser suggesting that now is a good time to buy a stockmarket-linked bond that does not protect your capital because the markets have fallen so much that another 30 per cent fall is unlikely. It is this type of blanket statement that caused some of the problems in the first place. Did the adviser know that markets were going to crash in March 2000? Did he foresee September 11 and the Iraq war?

Having your capital at risk is not necessarily a problem, of course. Some people may be willing to risk losing some of their capital in return for potentially higher levels of income or growth.

But surely it comes down to investors&#39 attitudes on risk versus return? If people want their original investment protected at all costs, why give them the bait of a better return in the first place? They are either relaxed with the prospect of losing some of their investment or they are not.

Hundreds of people, particularly those nearing retirement, who bought precipice bonds in the late 1990s would not have done so had they thought there was a chance of losing a single penny.

Thankfully, it would appear that product providers have learned a harsh lesson. Stung by the severe criticism, most have moved to bring out safer products that offer greater protection against loss of capital and that avoid the more volatile indices such as the Nasdaq or Nikkei.

According to structured, 90 per cent or so of stockmarket-linked bonds currently on offer guarantee to return at least your initial investment. Only eight out of 71 leave capital at some degree of risk and they have downside gearing of 1:1 and not the dangerous 2:1 gearing. This can only be good news for people who do not want to know their cliquets from their uncapped calls.

It is ironic that the precipice bond debacle has reared its ugly head again just as a structured product gets praised in the trade press. Premier Plan 8 has just matured early after one year of a possible six-year term, returning 8 per cent plus capital.

Structured products can have a genuine role to play in financial planning so long as investors go in with their eyes wide open. They can offer clarity. If the investor understands the structure of the bond, they will know what potential returns they will get over a set term. Importantly, they will know the downside risk should the index, indices or shares to which the bond is linked perform poorly.

Hopefully, we have seen the last of the risky precipice bonds and from now on we can sleep easy, knowing that investors are being given sound advice on sensibly designed products.

And David, if you are still interested, I am happy to rearrange that lunch. After all there&#39s plenty to talk about.

Paul Farrow is a personal finance reporter at the Sunday Telegraph


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