The FCA bans refer-a-friend schemes for high-risk investments

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The UK’s financial regulator is clamping down on the use of a refer-a-friend bonuses.

Financial regulators have been refining the rules about what constitutes an acceptable retail financial promotion since the introduction of MiFID II and the subsequent crackdown on leverage and suitability, in margin trading and spread betting accounts.

The FCA, the UK’s retail financial services regulator has come in for significant criticism because it failed to prevent loopholes in the system from being exploited.

Loopholes, which allowed the promotion of what were essentially unregulated high-risk products to the general public. That happened, despite the fact that these inappropriate financial promotions were approved by regulated firms.

The most notorious incident was the scandal involving mini-bonds issued by the now defunct London Capital and Finance or LCF, which collapsed in 2019 with the likely loss of £237 million of investor’s money. Some 11600 investors were induced to buy the high-risk bonds issued by the firm and its partners.

An independent report into the scam found that FCA had failed to supervise LCF properly, comments that triggered a revamp of the rules and a move to make the FCA more assertive.

Of course, the world of financial regulation typically moves at a glacial pace and so it was only last week that the UK regulator flexed its muscles saying that it will now require firms approving and issuing financial promotions to have ”appropriate expertise” and that firms marketing certain high-risk products will need to conduct better checks to ensure that they are suitable for the end customers who sign up.

As part of this crackdown, the FCA is to ban the use of refer-a-friend bonuses and similar schemes. Under which an existing client of an investment firm receives an inducement or incentive if they recommend the firm’s services to members of their own network who subsequently open an account with the firm.

Financial inducements in margin trading, spread betting and rolling spot FX were explicitly banned under MiFID II which came into force more than 4 years ago. So it’s surprising that it has taken until now for this common sense approach to be extended to other non-leveraged products.

One might also ask why it is that in the wake of LCF, any non-regulated firm should still be able to seek approval for financial promotions and then use them to market their products to retail investors.

We can gain some insight into those questions by noting that the new rules will not immediately apply to crypto asset promotions, where the FCA is waiting on the government to decide on exactly how crypto instruments should be regulated and then to pass legislation bringing that into UK law.

In the interim, these products will remain in a regulatory grey area which is of course exactly where LCF were able to operate.

Speaking about the new regulations Sarah Pritchard the FCA’s Executive Director of Markets said:

“We want people to be able to invest with confidence, understand the risks involved, and get the investments that are right for them which reflect their appetite for risk.”

she added that
“Our new simplified risk warnings are designed to help consumers better understand the risks, albeit firms have a significant role to play too.”

At the Good Money Guide, we are always pleased to see investor protections being tightened, particularly where that directly benefits retail traders.

However, we remain concerned about the pace of change and the fact that regulations seem unable to keep pace with what’s happening on the ground.

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