In the latest round of our mystery shopping exercise, the South China Morning Post visited Standard Chartered to test the quality of the financial advice offered to customers.
The reporter posed as a 37-year-old mother of two who wanted to invest HK$10,000 a month into a pension.
Financial needs analysis/risk assessment: The adviser started off with a general chat about what the mystery shopper was saving for, when she wanted to retire, how long she planned to pay into her plan for and what her monthly budget for saving was. She did not take notes.
The adviser asked how long the shopper planned to stay in Hong Kong. Her answer was at least five years, but that she was unsure of her plans beyond that. The adviser then suggested she opt for a plan with no redemption penalties after the first five years. She asked if the shopper had children, and if she had a savings plan for them.
The adviser said that some of the products offered by Standard Chartered were provided by Prudential. She was keen to talk about a promotion they had with Prudential that involved a free pen with any life insurance plan bought. She then took the shopper to see a Prudential representative without conducting any needs analysis or risk assessment.
Standard Chartered did not carry out a risk assessment but did show the shopper the questionnaire, which consisted of eight questions covering disposable income, attitude to volatility, liquidity needs and previous investment experience.
Investments offered: The Prudential representative showed the shopper something called the Prudential Evergreen Growth Saver, a whole-of-life insurance plan that combined savings with life insurance. The Prudential representative suggested the shopper commit to paying just over HK$10,000 a month for five years.
However, despite his colleague's recommendation that the shopper not look at any plan with redemption penalties within the first five years, this policy would definitely penalise anyone leaving the plan within that period.
After five years the Prudential plan would have a value of HK$432,015 even though, at that stage, the shopper would have paid in HK$601,128. She would have to hold onto the plan for 10 years to get all her money back.
The policy contained a guaranteed and a non-guaranteed element. The shopper would be 75 years old when the guaranteed element of the policy equalled the premiums paid in.
The adviser stressed that, based on current projections, the policy would be worth HK$2.25 million when the shopper reached the age of 66, assuming the non-guaranteed element performed as expected. The shopper said she did not want life insurance and was then told that the plan was really about saving.
The shopper asked to see some investments. The original adviser would not advise the shopper on investment products until she filled out the risk-profile questionnaire, which she could not do until she opened an account. However, she gave the shopper information on investments available, which included time-deposit accounts, bonds, equity-linked instruments, funds and a securities trading account.
Fee disclosure: The representative said the Prudential Evergreen Growth Saver had no charges. However, this was misleading, as the plan included a life insurance element, for which premiums would be deducted from monthly contributions.
Moreover, by the end of the second year, the policy would have a cash value of zero even though, at that point, the shopper would have paid in premiums of HK$240,451. This suggests at least some of that money would be set aside to cover charges such as the selling commission.
The representative said commission would be paid on the sale of the Prudential plan, but he did not know what this commission was. However, the fees for investments were clearly marked in documents.
Verdict of mystery shopper: Although Standard Chartered made more effort to understand the shopper's needs than seen so far at other banks, the first product they offered was unsuited to her needs. She was disappointed that, yet again, the bank's default option was to offer whole-of-life insurance (or plans that cover a client's whole life, typically involving long-term payment commitments).
Standard Chartered's range of investments were good - better than that offered at other banks so far - but the shopper suspected she would not have seen these had she not insisted.
Although the risk-profile questionnaire was standard, the adviser did make some effort to get to know the shopper's needs.
IFA verdict: Glenn Turner, former chairman of the Independent Financial Advisers Association, questioned why a life insurance protection product was offered without a thorough discussion on protection needs being carried out.
He said: "Additionally, assuming there were protection needs, is a whole-life policy the right product solution for the balance needed between the retirement and protection needs? Finally, why is there a lack of co-ordination between the financial plans of the mystery shopper and her husband?"
Standard Chartered response: A spokeswoman said the Prudential representative offered a common plan with medium to long tenor that provided guaranteed returns.
"The bank has a full range of investment products which may be appropriate to the customer according to customer's investment profile.
"As the bank did not have the customer's updated risk profile to better understand the customer's circumstances, the member of staff was not able to discuss any investment options," she said.