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Investment red flags

If it sounds too good to be true…

JOHANNESBURG – Unregulated investment schemes may be a dime a dozen in South Africa, but they’re pretty easy to spot so there’s really no excuse to get caught out.

Be wary when promised abnormally high and consistently positive returns that are guaranteed even when the market is down, cautions Marc Alves, senior case manager at the Financial Advisory and Intermediary Services (FAIS) Ombud.

“It’s very difficult to get a 10% return in the market through an established financial services provider, so if someone is offering you 2% a month or 30% per annum, be very cautious,” he says.

The JSE’s All Share Index (Alsi) returned 7.6% last year. The Top 40 Index, which holds South Africa’s largest blue chip companies, returned just 6%. Listed Property and the Financial 15 (which includes the largest banks and insurers) fared significantly better, returning around 19% and 23% respectively.

But even at the upper end, these numbers are significantly lower than the 300% annual returns promised by Zantech Trading or the 2%-a-day returns promised by Chris Walker’s Defencex. Both schemes were found guilty of contravening the Banks Act and ordered to repay investors.

“Empower yourself with sound financial planning and don’t make decisions based on pressure and emotions,” advises Alves, noting that those exploited are often people who have not provided sufficiently for their retirement or other financial needs.

“Ask about the risks and how easy it is to get your money out. A lot of these schemes are willing buyer, willing seller. It’s difficult to get your money out if there is no willing buyer,” he points out.

Make sure you understand how the investment works (could you explain it to someone else?) and where your money is going, Alves adds.

Know the laws

If a company is providing a financial service it must be registered under the FAIS Act and have a financial services provider (FSP) licence number, issued by the Financial Services Board (FSB). An unregistered FSP would be in contravention of the Act. You can check whether a company has an FSP licence on the FSB’s website by running a search on the company’s name (‘Search for FSP name’).

Herman Pretorius’s Relative Value Arbitrage Fund (RVAF) was not a registered fund with the FSB. Yet it is believed to have amassed R1.8 billion from 3 000 investors.

Fortunately, because it fell within the definition of a financial product, the FAIS Ombud was still able to pronounce on it despite it not being registered and has made numerous awards in favour of consumers. Last year alone, one financial advisor was ordered to repay more than R10.7 million to around 20 consumers who he had advised to invest in the RVAF.

However, a number of schemes set themselves up so as to fall outside the definition of a financial product. This leaves consumers with very little recourse since financial regulators can only enforce the laws they have jurisdiction over and only where these laws have in fact been broken. If a company is not registered with either the South African Reserve Bank (Sarb), FSB or National Credit Regulator (NCR), ask why.

The role of financial advisors

Financial advisors approached by clients for advice on these products must do the appropriate due diligence on the product, Alves says. “We’re not saying there’s not a place for alternative investments, but definitely advisors should do their homework and make sure that the products are sound and meet all the criteria,” says Alves.

“If you don’t understand the product yourself, if you haven’t done any due diligence and can’t answer the questions, don’t advise on it and certainly don’t earn fees,” cautions Gavin Came, a financial planner with Sasfin Wealth.

“Product providers have over time caused more damage than intermediaries, although advisors have borne the vast majority of the regulator’s wrath,” he maintains. “When investments don’t pan out, the intermediary carries the can for an ill-designed product at best and a ponzi scheme at worst,” Came says.


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