Minibond saga sparks rethink of bank rules

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 January, 2009, 12:00am

Curbs on lenders selling investments, cooling-off period for buyers floated

Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah yesterday ordered 'an immediate review' of Hong Kong's financial regulatory structure after both the Securities and Futures Commission and the Monetary Authority issued reports on last year's Lehman Brothers minibond fiasco.

The government will first focus on 'administrative measures' to improve existing regulations and better protect investors. These would include a cooling-off period for buyers and restricting the sale of investment products at bank branches.

'Later we will carry out a structural review that may be required for improving the regulatory structure and protecting investors as well as other measures that need to be implemented through legislation or legislative amendment,' Mr Tsang said.

The SFC wants laws changed to give it the power to order financial intermediaries to compensate investors in the event of misselling or other irregularities.

In the longer term, consideration should be given to establishing a financial services ombudsman, both regulators say.

A government source said the administration would soon issue a consultation paper on how and when to implement short-term measures.

In the longer term, the government wanted to review the entire regulatory structure for banks' securities businesses. This would include whether to allow banks to use their branch networks and teller staff to sell investment products.

Mr Tsang ordered the review after the government released reports submitted by the HKMA and the SFC on the minibond crisis.

When US bank Lehman Brothers collapsed in September, 43,700 Hong Kong investors were left holding derivatives it had issued or guaranteed but which had lost much or all of their value. Most were minibonds, which, despite their name, are complex, credit-linked derivatives. Investors claim banks and brokers mis-sold the products as low-risk.

The SFC and HKMA called for tighter oversight of the sale of financial products but rejected - at least in the short run - a call for a single regulator to oversee their sale.

At present banks and their securities businesses are regulated by the HKMA. The SFC regulates brokers but is also responsible for investigating and sanctioning bank staff who sell investment products.

The HKMA report recommended that all bank security business be brought under its supervision.

Both the SFC and HKMA reports said having the same bank branch sell investment products and handle client deposits created a conflict of interest.

The SFC said banks may consider establishing a clear-cut division between their banking and securities services by registering separate subsidiaries or affiliates with the SFC.

'This is not the only way, however, that such separations of functions can be achieved,' the SFC report said.

There could be 'a clear demarcation of premises and staff to avoid confusing customers as to the nature of the services being offered'.

Both reports called for introducing a cooling-off period for investors within which they could cancel their investments, as well as a requirement that intermediaries disclose the commissions they receive for selling such products.

The SFC would also require all investments to contain a brief description of the product and include a 'risk reminder' for investors.

Both reports rejected calls to ban the sale of investment products without regulatory approval.