While it is a familiar story of the damaging effects of commission-driven financial advice, the Barclays scandal is also an illustration of the perils of chasing yield in an environment of low interest rates.
The bank’s customers, many of them elderly people who needed to maximise their income during retirement, were encouraged in 2007 and 2008 to switch money from their deposit accounts into two funds, the Global Balanced Income and Global Cautious Income portfolios, managed by Aviva.
Barclays’ advice was conflicted: its employees were motivated by the large commissions paid to them when clients switched into the Aviva funds, the names of which did not reflect the underlying risks.
The bank is not alone in having done such a poor job. An article published in The Times in 2009 revealed several similar cases involving high-profile financial advisory firms.
The moral from the story is a refrain you will hear from anyone in the index fund or ETF business – do not take advice from anyone who has a financial interest in selling a particular product. Instead, you should completely avoid commission-driven salespeople and find a fee-only adviser. Alternatively, do it yourself.
But, at a deeper level, there are few reasons for those of us involved in the tracker fund industry to feel complacent.
Yesterday’s announcement of the fine imposed on Barclays coincides with a move in many risk assets to post-crisis highs, driven by record low official interest rates.
The maintenance of rates at a level several percentage points below inflation has led to a scramble for any yield-bearing instruments by those investors who are desperate for any means of maintaining their purchasing power.
If the Barclays-Aviva investors were suckered into buying poor-quality fund investments in 2007 and 2008 when rates in the UK were around five per cent, how many are being drawn into worse peril now that rates are near-zero?
I am not singling out any particular fund but it is noticeable that, as yields have collapsed over the past two years, there has been a flurry of launches of ETFs offering exposure to junkier debt.
Vanguard’s recent decision to postpone the launch of three municipal bond ETFs in the US follows a sharp sell-off in that market during November. John Woerth, a spokesman for the firm, was refreshingly open about the risks in the sector. “With the high level of volatility in the municipal market,” he said, “it’s not an opportune time to launch three new products. We believe the funds would have trouble tracking their benchmarks.”
With the bond market under increasing strain as speculation over interest rate rises intensifies, have the issuers of some of the ETFs tracking poorer quality debt drawn investors’ attention sufficiently to the risks – of losses, tracking problems or poor liquidity – they might face?