The Money Roundtable: Do long-term savings products serve their customers or their sellers?

The event was the first of a series of discussions aimed at ensuring our readers receive the most accurate and up-to-date advice on their personal finances.

The money experts Nigel Silltoe, Peter Hodgins, Tim Searle, Andrew Hallam, David Hughes and Sam Instone came to the office of The National in Abu Dhabi to discuss the state of financial advising in the UAE. Delores Johnson / The National
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A group of experts on Monday gathered in The National's newsroom in the capital to discuss whether long-term savings and investment plans offer UAE residents the best route to meet their financial goals.

The event was the first of a series of discussions aimed at ensuring our readers receive the most accurate and up-to-date advice on their personal finances.

It came in response to the Insurance Authority’s announcement last year that it plans to introduce tough regulations to fundamentally change the way savings, investment and life insurance policies are sold to residents in response to “an alarming amount of complaints” from policyholders.

The National has also received numerous letters from readers anxious about being locked into long-term products that see any gains swallowed by up heavy upfront commission fees and which impose harsh penalties for exiting the plans early.

The Money Roundtable brought together six leading figures from the financial services industry to garner their thoughts on the effectiveness of the contractual savings plans, which are produced by insurers and sold to UAE residents via financial advisors.

Among them were representatives from financial advisory companies that sell the plans, a lawyer representing the insurers that provide these plans and a personal finance author.

Discussion points included whether UAE residents are receiving the best advice and the need for more regulation and transparency in the market.

A hard sell

Long-term savings and investment plans sold in the UAE are “the most expensive financial products available anywhere in the world”, according to Andrew Hallam, the author of Millionaire Teacher: The Nine Rules of Wealth You Should Have Learned at School, at the roundtable.

Insurers that operate the plans – Zurich International, Generali Worldwide, Friends Provident International, RL360 and Hansard International – were all invited to attend the event but declined.

Last year, the UAE Insurance Authority announced its intention to introduce tough new regulations that will fundamentally change the way the plans are sold after receiving an “alarming” number of complaints from policyholders.

Circular No (33) of 2016 (Life Regulations) will compel sales advisers to provide a detailed breakdown of all fees and commissions for the life of the pol­icy, among other protections.

Peter Hodgkins, a partner at the law firm Clyde & Co, said that the implementation period of the new regulations “is critical”.

“Some of this can be very quick,” he said. “Development of disclosure requirements and product illustrations can be done quickly, but developing products that reflect changes to the way intermediaries are remunerated will take a little longer.”

Savers who have contacted The National said that they were persuaded to pay into long-term products on the promise of good returns, only to be stung by high commission fees and heavy exit penalties. According to experts, advisers are motivated to push the plans on the back of large commissions they receive when they make a sale, which could be about US$24,000 on a policy worth $2,000 a month for 25 years.

Analysts claim savers stick with them for just 7.6 years on average, but policyholders receive little back for exiting their plans after five, 10 years or even longer.

It is estimated that barely one in 20 completes the 25-year term. And those who do continue to the end often receive disappointing returns.

“To give you an example, if we have financial products that all in [cost] 4.5 per cent per year – and that is what we are seeing, 4.5 per cent, 5 per cent, sometimes higher – and the adviser is not doing anything silly and building a globally diversified platform, and if markets end up making, let’s say 7 per cent a year, and the investor is losing 4.5 per cent in fees, what do we have left?” said Mr Hallam, who is currently on a speaking tour of the Middle East.

“We have 2.5 per cent. But we have inflation historically, which has run historically 3 to 3.5 per cent per year. So it is my belief that you cannot retire effectively with the platforms that I have seen being sold prolifically throughout the Middle East.”

Mr Hallam likened the Middle East market to the “Wild West”. “I haven’t seen anything like this anywhere in the world,” he said.

David Hughes, a regional director for the Gulf at deVere Group, said that compared to the UK or the US, the Middle East “may be” the Wild West but not when it is compared to other parts of the world.

“There are many, many countries around the world where these are fully licensed products in a licensed environment,” said Mr Hughes.

“But if it is that product or no product, I would rather the client went into a structured savings plan. But can they be improved? Yes. Show me one industry, one sector, one product that can’t be improved.”

Tim Searle, the chairman of Globaleye, said there is “no problem” with the 25-year plan, but there is a problem with advisers being paid for a 25-year plan on day one.

“That’s the issue,” he said. “Because then you have your fee for execution. [They think] I got paid to execute. I didn’t get paid to come and see you every quarter. So the plan needs to change so there are certain milestones along the way.”

Nigel Sillitoe, the chief executive of Insight Discovery, said his main concern was the number of unregulated advisory firms operating in the UAE.

“It is estimated that there may be 1,000 advisers who are not regulated by anybody running around the UAE. So the first thing that needs to happen is the authorities need to defini­tely clamp down on these individuals and advisory firms that have no licence whatsoever.”

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The National’s Money Roundtable participants

Nigel Sillitoe, chief executive of Insight Discovery

Peter Hodgins, partner at Clyde & Co

Tim Searle, chairman of Globaleye

David Hughes, regional director (Gulf region) of deVere Group

Sam Instone, chief executive of AES International

Andrew Hallam, personal finance writer, author and speaker

Alice Haine, The National's Personal Finance editor

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