x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Reining in the cowboys is a must for the UAE financial services industry

Cold-calling cowboys and those who sell savings plans based purely on the commission they earn are giving the UAE's financial services industry a bad name.

Illustration by Gary Clement for The National
Illustration by Gary Clement for The National

I know a lot of people who have a lot of things to say about those unscrupulous people in the Emirates who call themselves financial advisers (despite really being salespeople). Me included. But you already know that.

From the cold-calling cowboys who persist in ringing you despite your objections, to the ones who "sell" you a savings plan based on the commission it pays rather than what suits you best, there's a lot of complaints out there.

I've dedicated a few of my columns this year to those types of salespeople (I refuse to call them financial advisers). Then again, you can't blame me.

Like many of you, I've been at the other end of their unwanted calls. I've even had arguments with them.

One of the cowboys even got irritated with me when I said that what he was doing was unethical.

And this was after I explained to him that as the Personal Finance editor at The National, he was clearly calling the wrong person. I mean, if his company was so good, I would have heard about it and I'd be calling them. Not the other way round.

But getting out the begging bowl in the form of cold-calls on the back of promises of unrealistic returns is their mantra.

Of course, he went on the defensive and accused me of being an unethical journalist because I also, apparently, cold-called people for interviews.

I assured him I didn't. But that didn't seem to make a difference, even when I said his call would do nothing but prompt me to write yet another column about this offensive practice being used by the well-known firm he worked for. Not to mention the ethics (sorry, lack thereof) of how he came to have my private number.

The good news is that I've not heard back from that particular salesman and the company he was representing. But we all know it's just a matter of time before the next one.

On the flipside, I know a few very good, ethical financial advisers. They are also qualified to advise their clients - unlike the cowboys who cold-call. They also have a strict policy on cold-calling: the practice is banned in their companies. They might be outnumbered in the UAE, but I can assure you they are out there.

Which brings me to a new leadership roundtable report by Insight Discovery, a strategic research company in Dubai, that has put the spotlight on the financial services industry, which is apparently working towards greater transparency and understanding for GCC consumers.

Some of the issues raised at the roundtable included a lack of understanding of available products - by both the consumer and adviser (now that's interesting) - and low trust levels of financial advisers among consumers. No surprise there.

But the overriding consensus among the roundtable's participants was the lack of co-ordination by the various regulators, not only in the UAE, but also the GCC, to the point where nobody knows who is overseen by who and what regulations they have to follow.

"We have federal regulations, free-zone regulations, insurance regulations, investment regulations and bank regulations to navigate," said Steven Greenfield, who participated in the roundtable and is the head of marketing (Middle East) at Zurich International Life.

I have to admit that I also get a little confused by the different regulators. Some financial services firms, for instance, are overseen by the Central Bank and are not allowed to use cold-calling as a sales tactic. Others, however, have side-stepped this by registering with the UAE's Insurance Authority, which has yet to ban cold-calls.

But as Farah Foustok, the chief executive of ING Investment Management Middle East, pointed out: "I think that it is important to remember that this part of the world is still developing in many respects."

Yes, we lag the best-practice regulations of other countries. And yes, there's been a lot of unqualified advisers allowed to operate here. Worse, a lot of consumers have been burnt.

But the participants at the roundtable are calling for regulatory reforms and the introduction of global best practices.

It won't happen overnight but it will happen - in fact, there are signs that much-needed changes have already begun.

"It is impressive that some firms are going the extra mile by insisting their advisers are appropriately certified," says Nigel Sillitoe, the chief executive of Insight Discovery. "This is extremely good news for GCC consumers."

And the next step? Getting rid of those cold-calling cowboys who are giving the industry a bad name.