A personal finance columnist for the NZ Herald

Inside Money: Fair game, not just for predators

Former commerce minister Lianne Dalziel at Parliament, Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Former commerce minister Lianne Dalziel at Parliament, Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell

As Commerce Minister in the previous Labour government, Lianne Dalziel, presided over one of the ugliest financial meltdowns in New Zealand history.

During her watch, the first of the finance companies tipped over in May 2006, creating a domino display that was still in full clatter by the time Dalziel left office in November 2008.

The disaster has left finance company investors about $3 billion in the hole (with over $1 billion of losses redistributed to taxpayers via the retail deposit guarantee).

It wasn't entirely her fault but I suspect Dalziel would handle the situation a little differently next time, if she ever gets the chance.

At least as chair of the Commerce Committee finance company inquiry, Dalziel did get to relive the experience from a safer historical perspective.

If the first time round she was slightly naive about how financial products are created and distributed, the finance inquiry report shows Dalziel et al more attuned to the reality.

This quote from the Committee's legal adviser, Tony Molloy QC, sets the philosophical tone for the inquiry:

"Meaningful consideration of investor protection legislation is impossible without first identifying the culture of the New Zealand market that has treated investors as prey, rather than as fellow citizens engaged in an enterprise from which all might profit to the benefit of the nation as a whole."

But how do you convert bloodthirsty predators to vegetarianism? Or teach sitting ducks to stand up for themselves?

Dalziel's inquiry backs many of the new legislative measures already in place - the Financial Advisers Act, for example, one of her government's last acts - but it also suggest more could be done to clip the wings of the predators and arm the prey with better defences.

For the prey, the Committee recommends higher doses of financial literacy - essentially giving the Retirement Commission more funding to do the job.

Prey, the report suggests, could also be better protected if commissions on investment products are banned - the flip side being that investors would have to pay for advice explicitly.

"We believe this is one of the matters on which investors need to understand better the benefits to be gained from taking independent professional advice, so they are willing to seek, and pay appropriately, for it," the report says.

As well, the report recommends that predators should be afforded less opportunity to camouflage themselves as friendly species.

Celebrity endorsement of financial companies, one of Dalziel's bugbears, comes in for renewed focus despite it being addressed somewhat in proposed new securities law.

"The celebrity section also gives rise to the funniest line in the entire report: "An additional reason [for the current government not going harder on celebs] given is the difficulty of defining what constitutes a 'celebrity'."

Labour and the Greens, however, demurred from the Committee position on celebrities, claiming "this approach will be ineffective, as people may be misled by seeing trusted faces endorsing products even if the words they use are not strictly misleading".

"We believe the advertising industry will find ways of couching statements so that they meet the letter of the law, while avoiding its intent," Labour and the Greens state.

Isn't that the definition of advertising?

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A personal finance columnist for the NZ Herald

David is a freelance journalist who has covered the financial services business on both sides of the Tasman for over 15 years. He is the editor of industry website Investment News. David has edited magazines and websites for the financial advice, investment and superannuation industries.

Read more by David Chaplin

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