BBC News

The dangers of taking investment advice from your bank

By Ian Rose and Andy Verity
BBC Two, Money Watch

image captionSue Murton lost £17,000 after investing her life-savings in a fund recommended by her bank

Interest rates for savers are at their lowest levels in history, so many people are turning to investment funds to get their money to work harder.

The problem is they are taking advice from their High Street banks and, in some instances, they are not getting advice that is suitable for them.

Sue Murton, from Aldeburgh, is among hundreds of customers who have complained to the Financial Services Ombudsman, after receiving poor advice from in-branch advisers which led to them losing large chunks of their life savings.

Sue wanted to boost returns from her savings because, like millions of others, she was receiving poor interest rates that meant her money was shrinking against inflation.

Risky investing

Sue was looking for a "cautious-to-medium" risk investment and was advised by Barclays to put £50,000 into a so-called "Balanced Fund", believing it to be matched to her relative unwillingness to take big risks - a key requirement for correct financial advice.

However, within months, she had lost £17,000.

"It's certainly not given me the nice comfy, cosy retirement that I was hoping for. I'm furious and I'm bitter," Sue says.

"The fund was a newly launched fund with 60% in stocks and shares, which are notoriously volatile," says Richard Davis, an independent financial adviser, who is campaigning for compensation for dozens of Barclays customers.

"The other 40% was in junk bonds and exotic financial instruments, all of which you would not expect to find in the portfolio of someone entering retirement."

Sue Murton's claim for adequate compensation was resisted by Barclays, despite two rulings in her favour by the Financial Ombudsman.

After the BBC got in touch with Barclays, and the Ombudsman made his final decision in Sue's favour, Barclays finally paid her a compensation cheque for the full amount of money she lost.

"Outrageous" tactics

In the Financial Service Ombudsman's most recent report, Barclays Bank attracted more complaints about its investment business than any other bank brand on the High Street.

In some cases, it has accepted the validity of the complaints, but it is resisting compensation claims from others.

Heather Spicer, aged 83, says she was pressured into taking a financial advice session by staff at Barclays in Colchester.

image captionBarclays had more complaints than any other bank

Heather felt harassed after being asked repeatedly by Barclays branch staff if she wanted financial advice, prompted by the large sum she was keeping on deposit which she inherited after her husband died.

"This is the money I had put aside for myself when I would need it. For care, hospital. All that sort of thing," she says.

Barclays staff advised her to put more than £100,000 into what was described as a "cautious" fund, where it quickly lost £40,000.

"Heather's case, frankly, was outrageous," Mr Davis says. "She was churned out of investments that she'd held for many years.

"To move her into a riskier investment environment was simply unconscionable.

"It began to become clear that the sales people involved were maximising their sales by selling existing investments and moving them… without due justification, but simply to increase the commission available to them," he adds.

Heather Spicer threatened Barclays with a complaint to the Ombudsman and the bank eventually paid her compensation.

Industry standards

Consumer group Which? has highlighted inadequacies in the financial advice given at High Street bank branches.

In a recent mystery shopping exercise to test whether the banks were giving good or bad financial advice, it conducted visits to 37 branches and was given the correct advice in only four of them.

Which? told Money Watch that the standard of advice in banks and building societies on the High Street was not up to scratch and customers should stay clear of them.

The British Bankers Association told Money Watch that financial advisers could only work with the information customers gave them.

Barclays says its advisers are not incentivised to sell any particular products and it has extensive controls in place to ensure a high standard of service.

How to beat tough times: Money Watch, BBC Two, 2000, Wednesday 21 July.