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Wheatley: Structured products are like ‘spread bets on steroids’

Martin Wheatley 2013 700x450
Financial Conduct Authority chief executive Martin Wheatley

Financial Conduct Authority chief executive Martin Wheatley says the regulator could use psychological “nudges” to prevent complex investments such as structured products from reaching the wrong customers, comparing many products to “spread bets on steroids”.  

Speaking at the London School of Economics last night, Wheatley said the assumption that consumers make rational financial decisions is wrong. He argued complying with regulation in the past has been almost “robotic”, and that product design and marketing processes were distorting the way consumers naturally behave, such as tucking away exclusions in insurance policies and excessively long terms and conditions.

Wheatley said it is harder to defend the concept of “buyer beware” where complex financial products are involved.

He said: “A perfect example has been some of the more exotic structured products offered by firms. Products that have often been mind-bogglingly complicated financial gambles, almost like spread bets on steroids.”

Wheatley explained while rational decision-makers would work out how likely it is to generate the returns promised, consumers act instinctively when they see the high returns advertised and in trusting the brand recommending the product.

He said: “Could we use behavioural economics to weed out products that are too complex for their target market, and may even be specifically designed to benefit from consumer mistakes?

“Many structured products fall in this category: products with too many moving parts, products that are almost impossible to take a rational decision on. So you revert to the instinctive: what is the headline rate; do I like the look of the salesman; is there a pot of gold on the poster?”

Wheatley said he wants to use behavioural economics to understand why consumers do not switch products when it is in their interest to do. He gave the example of “teaser rates” on savings and mortgages, which entice customers with a good rate for a limited period before reverting to a much worse rate.

He said at their worst, teaser rates are like the “financial equivalent of the Venus fly trap.”

Wheatley added: “We know there is huge scope for using behavioural economics to understand consumer decisions, to support firms and to improve regulation.

“We should not pretend this is a straightforward discipline, and it is only a part of the new FCA’s identity.

“The FCA is and will be much more consumer-focused. But consumer-focused does not mean consumer-biased. We still need to reach good judgements, weighing up the actions and interests of both firms and consumers.”

Do you agree with Martin Wheatley’s view that many structured products are like “spread bets on steroids”?  Vote in our straw poll to the right of this article.


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There are 39 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. I’m glad he said ‘some……’. There are plenty of relatively simple structured products that can suit some clients in some circumstances.

  2. This headline doesn’t do Mr Wheatley’s comments justice. I don’t believe that he wants to convey the message that all structured products are bad for all clients, or at least I hope he doesn’t believe that.

  3. Whilst I don’t fully agree with the comment that such investments are spread bets on steroids (given that most offer limited or full downside protection) I do feel that many investors (and perhaps those selling them) don’t really understand exactly how they work and in what circumstances those ‘protections’ may fail….

    As I’ve previously posted, they are suitable for the right client as part of a balanced portfolio BUT I’m suprised they became the (seemingly) mass market product used by many of the high street advisers.

  4. the headline is a little misleading as the example he gave of an exotic structured product involved 3 company stocks with kick-outs after 12, 24 and 36 months etc etc.

  5. I’m an IFA, let me out of here !

    I don’t know Mr Wheatleys qualifications, but this brings back memories of the statements last year from some FSA troll that Life Settlement funds were a toxic investment.

    This emotive language is stupid !

    If he is going to make such daft statements, he should justify it with evidence not supposition and assumption.

    Just goes to show, they obviously have the right person in charge who will continue the traditions of the FSA screw ups.

  6. So is he going to ban introductory interest rates on bank accounts.

    PS isnt this the same FCA that thinks a pay day loan with an APR of over 4000% is not too complex for the public?

  7. Ahem….whilst no-one doubts that some products are in need of much greater clarification and simplification to justify their existence, ( or else be binned ) it doesn’t automatically follow that investors are all brain dead and cannot make rational choices…many will be better informed that those working for the regulator…..a bit of Mr Wheatley looking down his nose on his fellow men there, methinks….

    And of course, he’s let the cat out of the bag again……he refers to liking the look of the ”salesman”…..

    …there you have it, the regulator still sees nothing but sales people rather than professional, upright advisers of many years experience and good standing….pending too much time in banking circles, no doubt….
    …when’s the last time HE advised any member of the public and what was the outcome?…..and would he expect to be fully entrusted by the client with looking after their well-being, were he able to demonstrate full status and qualification and an unbelmished track record?

    Any fully dilpoma’d Adviser worth his or her salt after RDR would be most likely to bomb out the most unsuitable or complicated products in any event, wouldn’t he / she?

    Get out of your tower Mr Wheatley and see that perfectly good and suitable advice really does exist on the ground….hard to see from the crow’s nest, eh?

  8. Yet to retain Independent status we have to consider these and be able to advise on them. They may be right for some clients but it has to be an exception. Are we also expected to advise on investments in Fine Wine, works of art, comic collections etc? Of course not, and certain products such as Structured Products should come under this category. As far as I can recall a significant number of complaints have arisen from Structured Products. Perhaps Wheatley has the right approach just take it a step further and consider how this relates to the definition of independence

  9. Well, hello sailor!

    Loving the pose Martin.

    Those are nice offices in the picture and those chairs look lovely too. They look a bit more expensive than my £30 one from Viking. I wonder how they afford those?

  10. I starting to like Mr Wheatley as he is right some of these products are far too complicated and should never carry the word guaranteed in the main marketing material.

    It may suit the salesperson to have the word guaranteed in a policy as it is easy to sell to the consumer but the fact is all too often these products are found wanting. Either by offering poor rates of return or in some cases through default not offering the capital guarantee that was promised.

    I personally would go even further and ban all structured products altogether they are certainly not low risk!!

    Even the simple ones are not simple when you actually break the product down and start looking at third party risk which I suspect many advisers never actually explain to their clients.

    May think there’s going to be a few individuals on here twitching on his comments.

    I personally would alike structured products to a free loan to a bank or financial institution where you take all of risk and get paid nothing in return. Lehman Bros anybody

  11. He has a valid point. There has been many a time I’ve left a training event where a structured product provider bamboozled everyone in the audience with their smoke and mirrors magic tricks to eternal wealth. I’ve had to go away and read their literature inside out before I knew what was going on. (at least I think I did?) In all honesty there were alternative products doing much the same thing that were easier to explain so the recommendation for a structured product was hardly considered. However, this ‘buyer beware’ nonsense is just that. There has to be some onus on a client to gain some understanding about what they’re investing in, and if they say to me they fully understand the risk who am I to doubt this? Unless of course I treat every investor as incapable, and if it ever gets to that I’m out of financial services full stop.

  12. Same approach, make a speech naming something toxic. Put in some factually incorrect terms, mention salemen but obviously drop the commission hungry bit previously used. Do this twice a week for full term of position thus justifying the soaring costs of an out of control regime that no-one has the power to stop for fear of being wrong.
    Funny how certain people outside of the industry are handing back their knighthoods but no mention of gong returns for those at the FSA who presided over the entire tragedy and regulated nothing.

  13. Simple Truth,
    How do you explain Corporate bonds to your clients then?

  14. I’m delighted that yet again the Regulator has come out with antipathetic comments on these products. I shall print and file this with the others – so that when asked by a Regulator why I haven’t recommended many of these (I did do one in 2011) I can bring out the file and stick it under his/her nose, and be able to continue to justify my independent status.
    Apart from anything else I find it tiresome to do the acres of extra due diligence required for these and then take 2 pages of A4 to explain it to a client – who usually loses the will to live by the time half of the first page is read.

  15. re simple truth, obviously not an Independent adviser, who has taken the time to research and advise his clients in what can be, as Paul said part of a well diversified portfolio, maybe its just to much trouble too do the research and mange any potential clients expectations of this type of investment.
    I have used a selection for a number of years from various providers its picking the more secure one’s from the even higher risk ones, anything with 3 stocks, agree, leave well alone, may as well let the client just hold the stocks in a portfolio.
    But also agree that comments of this kind from the regulator do not provide any kind or positive vibe to any investors – and maybe he and his other associates need to think before they speak, as we have to.

  16. Is there such a thing as a ‘simple’ structured product?

    Take a ‘straighforward’ one linked to the performance of the FTSE100 or similar where there is no loss unless a floor is reached but a fixed return or percentage of growth otherwise.

    Most people can understand that but answer me these few questions:

    1. How is it structured underneath, i.e. what instruments are being used and which firms are the underlying risks attributed to?

    2. What are the charges, and I mean all the charges (incuding those built into the underlying instruments, especially where they are created in-house) and is the product fair value based on that?

    Never mind how it works, just look at what it can do for you!

  17. Investing in certain areas of the world can be described as toxic – and yet the public is allowed to invest in them with no public denegration concerning the economies or political risks that certain countries have.

    One person’s toxic is another person’s opportunity.

  18. Anon | 11 Apr 2013 3:42 pm

    Are you really going to compare structured bond products to corporate bond funds you’ve got to be having a laugh.

    At least with a corporate bond you know what the fund is invested in as Grey Area points out above you have no idea where a structured bond product is invested and it’s also a fixed term.

    At least with a corporate bond product you have the flexibility of switching out of the product at any time without penalties. Yes you have to take the price of the day but the least a client can understand that and probably except the risks.

  19. @Peter Herd – A corporate bond is a loan to a company. The company promises to pay you a fixed amount for a period of time and then your capital back. If the company goes bust, you lose your money.

    A structured product is a loan to a bank. The bank then promises to pay you a return based on certain criteria. If the bank goes bust you lose your money. If X happens you receive Y. Some are complicated and high risk and some are very simple and relatively low risk. A bit like the difference between a corporate bond from Tesco and one from HMV.

    Regarding liquidity, decent structured products (not from certain south african banks unfortunately) will have a daily price and liquidity, just like a corporate bond.

    Not for everyone, but I think can form part of a balanced portfolio.

  20. CMC’S target miss sold Structured Product sales following the FCA’s CE statement.
    You can see it brewing

  21. “The Invesco Perpetual Income Fund aims to achieve a reasonable level of income, together with capital growth. The fund intends to invest primarily in companies listed in the UK, with the balance invested internationally. In pursuing this objective, the fund managers may include investments that they consider appropriate which include transferable securities, money market instruments, warrants, collective investment schemes, deposits and other permitted investments and transactions”

    So when you recommend this fund to clients (for example) do you explain and do they understand what transferable securities, money market instruments, warrants, collective investment schemes, deposits and other permitted investments and transactions are?

    Thought not! Every investment has things in them which may or may not be appropriate for clients, it’s your job to understand them and assess their suitability for your clients. If you don’t understand it then either leave the profession or do some more training until you do. that’s what you’re supposed to be charging them for your skill, experience and knowledge.

  22. Anonymous | 11 Apr 2013 5:36 pm

    I can sell that Perpetual Income Fund at ANY time at market value the Structured produced is fixed and the guarantee that these products say they have is worthless eg Key Data and others

  23. It never ceases to amaze me how ignorant many IFAs remain about structured products!

    The majority are no more complex than most unit trusts or OEICs, especially those that are UCITS funds. People really ought to take the time to understand these products properly.

  24. I would like to point out some facts.

    Firstly, “simple truth” is telling every thing but the truth. His/her misinformation regarding structured investments and deposits demonstrates a level of understanding that should have me running to the regulator. Based on his first rant, repeated, then if he/she can find one piece of marketing material of a UK retail product from at least the last two years that uses the term “guaranteed” then I will donate £100 to charity. He/she simply cannot separate (or understand) the differences between structured deposits and structured investments, potentially mischievously but more likely through ignorance. Indeed the last demonstration of ignorance, using the failure of Keydata US life settlement contracts to identify broken promises, is a common misconception. Structured Products issued originally by Keydata have been very successful. Life settlement contracts were not and are not structured investments, as indeed neither are With Profit funds or trackers?

    Secondly, Peter Herd’s views are also widely known on these pages regarding the behaviour of his old employer, a building society. Despite a lot of time passing, he has not filled it with education because he makes the same common mistakes as “simple truth”.

    And lastly, when you have had burning effigies of you outside your employer, the Hong Kong SFC, because of the number of victims of misselling identified by the collapse of Lehman’s that as regulator he had overseen the approval of, then he is hardly likely to be particularly favourable towards structured Investments.

    Unfortunately, now at the FCA it appears that his, Wheatley’s, route to gather information on “misselling” this time is stated to be meetings he has had with……The Daily Mail. That should send shivers up all our spines.

    I have no doubt that Banks & Building Societies are going to continue to be under intense scrutiny, deservedly so, for their sales practices, as identified already by the decision Lloyds have made, however, this bares little relevance to the raft of attractive, successful and extremely simple, investment products and deposits that highly respected,highly qualified, advisers have been using in portfolios for many years.

  25. “what is the headline rate; do I like the look of the salesman”.

    Who are these salesmen Mr Wheatlley is talking about? I thought the FSA got rid of them all with the magic level 4 qualification.

    So we are still just salesmen to the regulator anyway. Doesn’t that just sum up their attitude to us. Meet the new boss….

  26. Missold Investments 12th April 2013 at 8:35 am

    He may have been referring to more esoteric varieties of structured product, but he could also be thinking of his first-hand experience of dealing with 44,000 ordinary savers who lost their money in Lehman-backed structured products when he worked in Hong Kong.

    It is a worry to see comments referring to protection levels, when ‘capital protected’ structured investment products actually offer no protection against counterparty failure. As for ‘balanced portfolio’ – many risk-averse savers in the mass market don’t have enough money to diversify, yet they are targeted with these products.

  27. Goldfinger D Megabucks 12th April 2013 at 9:28 am

    @ Simple Facts

    Is it me or are ‘Simple Truth’ and Peter Herd one and the same ?

  28. As an ex Abbey person. These things were extensively pushed when they first arrived in the UK as ‘guaranteed’ products, the training as to how these things worked was totally inadequate.

    This has muted to ‘protected’ with the introduction of more training, and an understanding by managemtn of exactly how these things worked.

    Personally, emotive words like ‘protected’ should be removed completely from the descriptions. The great british Public misunderstand ‘protected’ in the same way they totally misunderstand the concept of ‘risk’ in any form. They hear what they want to hear, and sales staff ensure that they hear what they want to hear with only the barest legal mention of how they actually work. Which the great British public wouldn’t want to know anyway because it involves a level of understanding, much easier to throw ones hand up in horror when it goes wrong and scream ‘I was sold it’ (never i bought it)

  29. Simple Facts | 11 Apr 2013 10:00 pm

    I do like how some advisers seem to justify the sale of structured products as part of a well diversify portfolio. When in fact banks and building societies in particular who sold these products were looking to get as much money from depositors as possible up until about 2003 when the regulator and bank compliance departments started to introduce maximum exposure levels e.g. 40%.

    Now I don’t know about you but if somebody has less than £100,000 putting 40% in one product is not a well diversify portfolio. Up until this introduction of maximum limit some organisations were putting well beyond 40% of clients money in these products. I remember reading an article in my local press about a lady who was persuaded to put £250,000 into a Key Data product by East Anglia building society, after a long fight she managed to get full compensation. This was the majority of her lifetime savings, how can you justify that type of behaviour.

    Fact: originally these products were sold as low risk products until compliance departments and regulator instructed banks and building societies to classify them as medium risk!

    Possibly what people like about these types of products as they have the word guaranteed or protected in the title which makes it easier to sell the product.

    You stated that if I could find a structured product with the word guarantee you would donate £100 to charity in the last two years. Now I won’t find it because the regulator has banned providers from using the word guaranteed or protected in the title due to a campaign I ran and many other people voicing their opinion is that these are misleading. What about billions of pounds invested in these products over the period of time that the word guarantee and protected wasn’t banned

    I’m fully aware of the difference between an investment product and a deposit product and the difference between compensation levels I suspect clients who buy products through building societies don’t always. We are yet to see whether the FSCS would actually upheld a claim 85,000 on a deposit structured bond product instead of the £50,000 limit for investment as with not had one fail yet

    Is up to each individual adviser whether they sell a product or not I just choose not to because I don’t like the complicated structure and the fact that you can’t get a daily valuation.

    I guess we will judge who was right by the number of upheld complaints.

  30. Peter Herd. That is your problem, you won’t let facts get in the way of your story.

    Your reply is full of “observations” that don’t stack up. And whilst I don’t intend going back 10 years, as you have done, I have to come back.

    So, to clarify.

    You say “I remember reading an article in my local press about a lady who was persuaded to put £250,000 into a Key Data product by East Anglia building society, after a long fight she managed to get full compensation. This was the majority of her lifetime savings, how can you justify that type of behaviour.” Right. I will try again. Nobody can justify that kind of behaviour. Have I even attempted to? But at risk of bursting your bubble a) it wasn’t a structured product and b) telling someone to invest their life savings in 1 product is not the issue of the product, it’s an issue of the advice. Question to you. If that same little old lady had been told to invest her life savings in one collective that YOU advise on, would you stop advising on that collective, or simply be disgusted that bad advise had taken place?

    Again, 40% of a portfolio invested in 1 product, be it a structured product or a collective, is NOT a product issue.

    Sorry you are not up to the charity challenge, perhaps now you will stop stating “guarantee” is a word currently used. The word guaranteed was indeed removed by providers following the clarification of what constitutes a guarantee. But people like you still use it as the reason you believe they are “toxic”.

    Nope, perhaps you wont! You’ve done it again! You say, “Possibly what people like about these types of products as they have the word guaranteed or protected in the title which makes it easier to sell the product.” Where is a product available with the term guaranteed in the title? You say “like”, so, current tense. £200 to charity perhaps?

    The term “Protected”, is currently, and will continue to be, used where a function of the payoff is to protect capital.That is what the products are designed to do. Exchange equity risk with counter-party risk.

    You are absolutely right, we have NOT had a structured deposit fail. For you to then cast aspersions on whether FSCS covers SD’s is just ridiculous. Has anything EVER been said to suggest they are not? Is that how you justify not even considering structured deposits for your own clients post RDR?

    The point is, you don’t simply choose not to advise on them (as apposed to sell), you actually choose to write constantly on them. Mostly confused and incorrect.

    As regards the uphold complaints line, I have absolutely no doubt that a large number may well, however, I give you this in return. How many will be upheld as being unsuitable SALES not unsuitable PRODUCTS.

    Oh, and is Goldfinger right, do you have 2 personalities?

  31. SimpleFacts | 12 Apr 2013 11:44 am

    If you believe the last line of that common above:

    How many will be upheld as being unsuitable SALES not unsuitable PRODUCTS.

    Maybe product providers would offer a product levy to fund the regulator structure and FSCS instead of it being based on an adviser levy.

    In the meantime, nowhere in your ramble did you actually explain why structured bond products were using the word guaranteed and protected up until about a couple years ago.

    I welcome the change in wording but that’s only come about due to people like me and others insisting that misleading language should not be used in sales material!

    Was this misleading – yes.

    Am I the only one to say this – no

    As to why I don’t recommend structured products is simple I don’t like the counterparty risk, the complicated terms and conditions, the lack of ability to value the policy on a daily basis, and the fixed term with a relatively poor rate of return.

    Once again I repeat that comes down to personal choices an adviser but why should I pay in high fees when these things fail!

  32. Goldfinger D Megabucks 12th April 2013 at 12:51 pm

    @Simple Facts

    Told you it was Peter Herd !

  33. The Grey Defector 12th April 2013 at 1:24 pm

    Reckon he should jusy use the one name for postings in future.

    Hpw about ‘Simple Peter’

  34. Delighted to see that my facts are justified by your (or Peter’s, I am still confused?) complete inability to answer any questions, but as a courtesy I wont do the same..

    So you ask..

    “In the meantime, nowhere in your ramble did you actually explain why structured bond products were using the word guaranteed and protected up until about a couple years ago”

    Firstly, as I tried explaining, the use of the term “protected” is and continues to be both permitted, and used, where the aim of the contract is to protect capital from market falls. That has not changed, however, you do not see many protected products on the market currently due to pricing, not regulation.

    Now. On to “guaranteed bonds”. Retail deposit takers, by that very definition, must have assets to meet liabilities. Now, I am sure as a keen surveyor of detail you may have noticed that in 2008, the world changed. Banks failed. However, to be clear, no UK retail deposit product failed. They had always been called guaranteed, however, the FSA decided that was no longer a suitable term because a bank COULD fail. So providers stopped using the term guaranteed.

    Delighted to assist.

  35. @ Peter, whilst I can understand where you are coming from, I do think you are being a little blinkered.
    A structured DEPOSIT is covered under cash deposit rules, so if an income paying deposit pays th level of income a client wants and needs for a particular issue, it is one way of securing that income which then allows the client with relative peace of mind to go off and be more adveturous with the rest of their portfolio. To some extend no more risky than a corporate bond fund where the counterparty is a bank where the FSCS BANKING levy meets the risk. If the whole of the banking sector were to collapse (again), then there is nothing we can do to ptoected against that bar purchasue phsical assets where we just change the problem. Having physical assets and living in Syria at the moment or South Korea is not a lot of good, nor was having gold teeth between 1939 and 1945 if you were unwanted section of certain socities including homosexuals, union leaders, Polish Officers or Jews or gypsies which might alos have been any of the above.
    Structured Investments are a whole different ballgame as they are NOt covered by the FSCS at all if the counterparty (bank) fails and if the advise gets it wrong and fails to cover their backside properly, then I really do understand why you would be annoyed Peter as you and I then end up picking up the bill via FSCS.
    As to Keydata, there was definate fraud in the SLS cases and NOBODY has disputed this, it will now be interesting to see if the court gets the FSCS and FSA to open their mouth and confirm or deny whether there was also fraud with Lifemark as if that is the case, the quantum of any lose may be adjusted if any of the test cases are lost by an advisery firm.
    As to bank deposits I had ONE client with a £250k portfolio of which £3,000 we discussed and the modest risk of this meant we placed it in an Icesave Cash ISA, I explained I thought they were paying over the odds and for a reason and we decided to take a punt as the FSCS protects smaller depositors. If the other banks didn’t agree with the FSCS levy covering this, they should have argued their case at the time with the FSCS and FSA and Treasury (as we did), but as we all now know, Knigthoods were being awarded for people telling the Emperor his clothes were lovely and everything looked wonderful whilst us IFA children were still being ignored. He was entirely happy and we had a bit of a laugh afterwards.
    A bad workman blames his tools or a non workman makes the worker wear protective clothing which actually puts the worker at MORE risk than were he not to be wearing it in the first place!

  36. Goldfinger D Megabucks 12th April 2013 at 2:02 pm

    @Simple Facts

    ref: Use of the word Guaranteed

    I believe that you are in fact wrong – I thought it was Peter that brought about that change at least that’s what he suggests earlier herein

  37. If an adviser explained the intricate detail of any investment they would put the client off. Structured products come with varying degrees of risk and for deposit investors there is always the FSCS to fall back on if the bank goes bust. the FCA appear to be making comments without thought as the FSA conducted a very thorough review of Structured Investments with clear guidelines. Wheatley sounds naive and out of date with his views as we have come a long way since Lehman and Key Data.

  38. A structured deposit is usually safer than a corporate bond fund, but a structured investment is significantly riskier than a corporate bond fund.

    Martin Wheatley’s comments are taken out of context and misquoted.

  39. i think products should be transparently explained to clients and mentioned by their real names. Spread betting says its betting so people know what they’re getting into – not so much for some of these funds and leveraged ETFs which hide the fact that the fund managers are just taking straight-forward bets on the markets.


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