DeVere faces down bad practice claims
Clients complain that unlicensed advisers sold them insurance products and used aggressive sales tactics, an investigation by the Post reveals
Jasper Moiseiwitsch and Benjamin Robertson
One of the biggest financial advisory firms to expatriates in Hong Kong, controlling US$9 billion in assets worldwide, is facing down accusations of mis-selling and bad practice from former clients and employees, an investigation by the South China Morning Post has revealed.
DeVere, which describes itself as the world's biggest financial consultancy, has been disciplined seven times by its regulator in the past eight years for breaches of industry rules.
Documents seen by the Post reveal that the Hong Kong Confederation of Insurance Brokers (CIB) has handled a complaint this year by a Hong Kong doctor after she was advised by deVere representative Charlie Reeves to consolidate premiums paid to two investment-linked insurance plans sold by Generali, called Vision. The consolidation resulted in extra fees and charges for both plans.
The core complaint was that Reeves was "churning", or encouraging a client to sign a new agreement for the sake of generating a selling commission, but the more damning accusation was that Reeves did not hold a CIB licence.
The doctor's case has echoes in a number of others disclosed to the Post, which broadly allege that deVere has breached regulations by employing unlicensed advisers to sell insurance products and engaging in aggressive sales tactics to secure big commissions at the expense of client interests.
As deVere is licensed by the CIB, all its staff who advise on or arrange insurance products must be authorised by the CIB.
DeVere has more than 3,650 clients in Hong Kong, according to spokesman George Prior. He adds that all company representatives are "appropriately qualified and work within the guidelines set by the regulator".
CIB rules state that while an unregistered person may meet a client, they must be accompanied by the firm's registered chief executive or technical representative if any activity related to advice on or arrangement of insurance takes place at such a meeting.
"If any unregistered person carries out any regulated activity, such act will fall under the purview of the CIB and necessary action will be taken against such member," the CIB says.
The Post's investigations reveal that deVere staff Matthew Bond, David Hubbard, Tom Rogerson and Jason Ryder are not CIB-licensed, nor is area manager and head of Hong Kong operations Edward Rice.
Prior said none of those staff members were client-facing, and therefore they did not require CIB licensing.
The CIB has declined to license any new deVere staff for the past year because it has been without a chief executive for all that time.
Early this year, Rice asked the CIB to approve him as deVere's Hong Kong chief executive. The CIB did not approve the application partly because it arrived just as the regulator received the Hong Kong doctor's complaint.
Rice has since withdrawn the application and deVere has put forward a new candidate.
In the interim, the company has been without an authorised Hong Kong head for 12 months.
Prior said "experienced company managers" were responsible for regulatory compliance pending resolution of its chief executive issue.
In another letter of complaint sent to the CIB in August last year, a client said deVere sold him a Generali Vision plan to fund his daughter's education. At the time of the sale, the agent told the client he could exit the plan at any time without penalty.
The complaint says that turned out not to be true, although Prior disputes the allegation.
Nevertheless, another deVere employee, Andrew Bone, who had taken over the account, suggested the client cut contributions to the existing plan and then put surplus contributions into a shorter-dated policy, according to the letter sent to the CIB.
"I agreed in principle to this proposal but subsequently found out that if I reduce the contribution amount, I would still be charged fees at the original premium value," the complaint letter said.
"Mr Bone did not disclose this to me at the time of our discussion and this was an obvious attempt to twist business so he could earn additional commission."
The client's use of the term "twist" is industry jargon. Hong Kong's Office of the Commissioner of Insurance defines the practice as making inaccurate or misleading statements to induce a client to replace one long-term insurance policy with another to the policyholder's disadvantage.
DeVere did not acknowledge any wrongdoing in this complaint, but it did pay back all the client's money.
In another complaint to the CIB, a client complained that deVere employee Neil Reed signed off on a contract despite not being present at the point of sale. Prior said deVere also cancelled this client's contract.
None of the above clients were responsible for providing the information that has been given to or uncovered by the Post. DeVere has, however, started legal action against two former employees the firm suspects of breaching confidentiality clauses and talking to the Post.
Prior declined to comment on any of the individual cases raised by the Post, citing client confidentiality, but conceded mistakes had been made.
"The firm acknowledges that some mistakes have been made in the past. Should any client, past or present, have been affected by our mistakes, deVere apologises without reservation," Prior said.
Industry insiders say unscrupulous firms can exploit the regulations for Hong Kong's fragmented insurance industry.
The Independent Financial Advisers Association reckons there are about 4,500 individual financial planners working for 90 independent financial advisory businesses in Hong Kong.
Three industry bodies - the CIB, the Professional Insurance Brokers Association and the Insurance Agents Registration Board - directly oversee intermediaries. None of them have statutory powers and they have limited means to address complaints.
The CIB said it "has been aware of certain allegations regarding deVere for some time".
Glenn Turner, the former chairman of the Independent Financial Advisers Association, is scathing about deVere.
"They represent the worst of the independent financial advisory business community in Hong Kong," Turner said. "I think their business practices flout the spirit of the regulations … and violate the rules we have in place for the broker community."
And yet Hong Kong regulators appear to have struck a fairly weak stand against deVere.
With echoes of complaints about deVere in Hong Kong, regulators in Singapore said the firm let eight unlicensed representatives "conduct financial advisory services".
In 2008, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) fined Inter-Alliance International, deVere's wholly owned subsidiary, and issued a supervisory warning to its chief executive, Robin Deal.
DeVere maintains there were no client complaints in Singapore, although it does admit to breaching distribution rules.
"Some distribution mistakes were made in Singapore for which the firm has apologised and received a small fine from the regulator," Prior said.
"DeVere accepted that mistakes were made and the subsequent penalty," he said
The MAS accused deVere of infractions that are no worse than those it is accused of in Hong Kong.
DeVere left Singapore five years ago and has yet to return.
Prior said deVere opted to withdraw from Singapore "due to some regulatory grey areas in the marketplace".
Hong Kong plans to adopt a unified, statutory insurance regulator, likely in 2015, to address "perceived and real" conflicts of interest inherent in the self-regulatory set-up, according to a three-year-old Financial Services and the Treasury Bureau consultation paper.
In the meantime, deVere was looking to expand in Hong Kong and, Prior said, "considering widening its sphere of activities".