The Financial Services Authority (FSA) has issued its largest ever retail fine of £10.5 million to HSBC because of inappropriate investment advice provided by one of its subsidiaries, NHFA Limited (NHFA) to elderly customers. HSBC estimates that the amount of compensation to be paid to NHFA customers will be approximately £29.3 million in addition to the fine.
Between 2005 and 2010 NHFA advised 2485 customers to invest in asset-backed investment products, typically investment bonds, to fund long-term care costs for elderly customers. The products were sold to individuals entering, or already in, long-term care and in many cases these elderly customers were reliant on the investments to pay for their care. Typically these investments are recommended for a minimum period of five years.
The advice and sales were unsuitable because in a number of cases the individual’s life expectancy was below the recommended five-year investment period. As a result customers with shorter life expectancies had to make withdrawals from these investments sooner than is recommended. The combination of withdrawals and product charges led to faster reduction of capital than should have been the case if customers had received the right advice. A review by a third party of a sample of customer files found unsuitable sales had been made to 87% of customers involving these types of investments.
It was clear that HSBC’s subsidiary, NHFA, had not considered the individual needs of its elderly customers and failed in many cases to recommend suitable products for their circumstances. It was also apparent that NHFA’s advisers failed to consider the tax status of customers before making a recommendation.
The FSA views the failings as particularly significant because:
- NHFA’s customer base was particularly vulnerable. The average customer age was almost 83 and they therefore had limited means or opportunity to make up any financial loss resulting from an unsuitable sale
- NHFA was the leading supplier in the UK of independent financial advice on long-term care products to help pay for care costs, with a market share in recent years approaching 60%
- The mis-conduct occurred over a period of five years
- A significant number of customers may have suffered financial detriment.
HSBC agreed to settle at an early stage entitling it to a 30% discount on its fine. It also demonstrated its commitment to making changes to its operations. HSBC closed NHFA to new business on 1 July 2011.
Tracey McDermott of the FSA says, “NHFA was trusted by its vulnerable and elderly customers. It breached that trust to sell them unsuitable products. This type of behaviour undermines confidence in the financial services sector. HSBC, who owned NHFA, has now recognised the issues and taken steps to do the right thing. They have been given credit for that - but for some customers it will be too late. This penalty should serve as a warning to firms that they must have the right systems and controls in place to manage and identify risks when they acquire new businesses. A failure to do so can lead not only to detriment to their customers but to significant reputational and regulatory cost.”