'Fired and banned': How Ken saved a fortune ditching his financial planner

About eight in 10 adult Australians are not receiving financial advice, even though many would benefit.

Despite surveys showing how stressed many of us are about money, it's a figure that hasn't changed over the past 25 years.

Many people are put off by the cost of face-to-face advice, they're concerned that products would be pushed or they perceive a lack of independence within some parts of the financial planning industry. Sometimes people find some advisers are not very interested in talking to clients who don't have substantial wealth to invest.

Those behind "robo-advisers", which provide automated advice, say technology can reduce the advice gap by making the advice cheap.

There is a variety of robo-advisers that have been developed by fintech companies - from the basic to increasingly sophisticated. It is being provided online and on smartphones.

Super funds are starting to provide some automated advice to their members and employers are starting to offer it as part of their employee welfare programs.

James Windon, co-founder of Flare, is tackling financial health through the workplace as part of its package of human resources and payroll services that it provides to employers.

"What we offer is a technology platform which helps people to understand their financial position and also make decisions about products that are a good fit for them," Windon says.

These types of automated advice are mostly operated under "general" advice rules.

That is where information is provided about a product that might be suitable for someone with only limited knowledge of a person's financial circumstances.

Changing times

Information technology recruiter Ken MacLeod has used a human financial planner in the past but is happy to get his information through technology now.

He jumped at the chance to get his finances back on track after his employer recently made automated advice available to its employees.

Several years ago, after migrating from South Africa, he went to see a planner employed at a big bank and was advised by the planner on his super and life insurance. But that ended in questionable circumstances.

"I got a message from my bank that the planner had been fired and banned from being a financial adviser," he says.

The software his employer is using, Flare, is really easy to use, Ken says. He has transferred his super to a better-performing fund. "It has saved me massively on fees," Ken says. "I am looking at other options for life insurance that will give better cover," he says.

Ken, 36, is married with two young children. One of his main financial goals is to save for a deposit on a house and Flare has helped him get on track to meet that goal.

"Flare has a lot of automated stuff, but I can still pick up the phone if I need to talk to someone," he says.

Personal advice

A new robo-adviser, Map My Plan, claims to be taking automated advice to a new level.

It is believed to be the first automated adviser to provide comprehensive personalised financial advice.

Financial plans, depending on complexity, can cost several thousands of dollars. Map My Plan is free for individuals, with an optional monthly subscription for those who want to receive human support by email or by phone

To date, robo-advisers tend to be limited in what they can do.

Typically, the user answers questions on income, assets and savings and on goals and tolerance for risk.

The robo-adviser then recommends a portfolio mostly, if not totally, comprised of exchange-traded funds. That might be fine for those who just need some narrow advice on investing and don't want a full-blown comprehensive financial plan, but it won't suit everyone.

Super funds are also becoming sources of advice - both by phone and online. But they're allowed to provide only limited "intra-fund" advice to their members.

The advice is limited to the risk and return characteristics of the fund's investment options. It can include advice on how much should be salary-sacrificed to super to reach a particular retirement goal. It cannot recommend moving money between super funds.

So far the use of robo-advice by super funds is limited; some funds are using robo-advice to help members choose the appropriate level of life insurance.

That's a world away from traditional holistic advice that takes into account all of the relevant factors in making a recommendation, and where a written financial plan is provided.

Holistic advice

Map My Plan founder Paul Feeney says it provides a personal holistic financial plan that can be updated each time the site is accessed and personal circumstances have changed.

It has a financial services licence and the protections that you would expect of a planner, such as membership of a complaints resolution scheme and professional indemnity insurance.

It builds a financial map through a process of self-directed process. The planning process is in three parts - foundation goals, home and lifestyle goals, and retirement and investments.

"The map then adjusts as new information is added and goals are achieved," Feeney says.

He expects it to appeal to a broad market; though, "no service can be everything to everyone".

Those with complex needs, whom Feeney estimates to be about 10 per cent of the population, will still need face-to-face advice.

Map My Plan does not recommend financial products - it is advice only - which removes potential conflicts of interest that can sometimes occur with traditional financial planning, Feeney says.

It someone flags that they have credit card debt on which high rates of interest are paid, Map My Plan may recommend the consumer pays off that debt first before making any further recommendations.

Map My Plan is being used by Ernst and Young in Australia and New Zealand as part of its wellbeing program for its 5500 staff in recognition of the impact poor financial fitness can have on staff and families.

Bernie Ripoll, who was the federal Labor MP for Oxley in Queensland until last year, and is a director of Map My Plan, says technology has to be the answer to the advice gap.

He is more aware than just about anybody else of the problems in the industry.

The Ripoll Report eventually led to the Future of Financial Advice reforms, which included the removal of most commissions from financial advice and put in place a series of consumer protections.

Costs prohibitive

He says the costs of face-to-face advice can be prohibitive for many people.

"I can't see any other way to reach the 80 per cent of Australians who don't currently get financial advice," Ripoll says.

A survey by Newgate Research of more than 1500 people conducted in the second half of last year found that one in two were worried about their finances.

One in four said that they had experienced difficulties sleeping because of financial anxiety.

Financial stress affects workers regardless of income - even one in three of those earning more than $120,000 a year were worried about their financial situation, the survey found.

Newgate's survey, which was sponsored by Map My Plan, found more than half of those not using an adviser believe their financial situation is too simple to need professional advice and that they don't have enough money to make it worth a planner's time.

Jon Shaw, the head of technology and commercial operations at Moneysoft, doubts automated advice will ever be able to rival face-to-face advice.

"Many people need a trusted financial adviser to put them on a path to financial wellbeing and keep them on it," he says.

There is no doubt that technology is cutting the cost of providing a range of investment services to the mass market, Shaw says.

"However, the individuals that comprise the mass market don't typically make complex financial decisions with minimal guidance," he says.

Automated advice is good as far as it goes, but Shaw cautions people who think that it may be a proxy for quality face-to-face advice.

Human touch

Moneysoft provides automated advice to financial advisers as a tool for their clients to keep track and to reach their financial goals. It doesn't attempt to supplant the role of the adviser.

"When dealing with something as important as one's financial wellbeing, we're unlikely to see the day when that will be entrusted entirely to a robot with no human element involved," Shaw says.

"People like to have things explained to them; they want to know why, and have it explained to them in their terms and only a human on the other side of the desk or on the phone can do that properly."

The story 'Fired and banned': How Ken saved a fortune ditching his financial planner first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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