The FSA has fined HSBC £10.5m for inappropriate investment advice provided by one of its IFA subsidiaries, NHFA Limited (NHFA), to elderly customers.
It is the largest ever retail fine issued by the regulator and HSBC estimates that the amount of compensation to be paid to NHFA customers will be approximately £29.3m.
Between 2005 and 2010, NHFA advised 2,485 customers to invest in asset-backed investment products, typically investment bonds, to fund long-term care costs for elderly customers.
The products, which are typically recommended for a period of five years, 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.
However, 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, meaning customers with shorter life expectancies had to make withdrawals 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 and 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.
The FSA said it was clear that NHFA had not considered the individual needs of its elderly customers and failed in many cases to recommend suitable products for their circumstances, for example higher fixed interest rate savings accounts and ISAs.
It added NHFA's advisers also failed to consider the tax status of customers before making a recommendation.
The FSA said the failings were 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 approximately five years; and
- a significant number of customers may have suffered financial detriment. During the Relevant Period 2,485 customers invested in asset-backed products. The total amount invested was close to £285m, meaning the average amount invested per customer was approximately £115,000
The failings breached Principle 9, which states that a firm must take reasonable care to ensure the suitability of its advice and discretionary decisions for any customer who is entitled to rely upon its judgment.
HSBC is now undertaking a past business review to determine if customers of NHFA or their families are entitled to redress and will contact customers directly. It has indicated that it expects the cost of redress alone to be £29.3m.
It 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, acting director of enforcement and financial crime, said: "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."
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