ST Sep 24, 2008I've never really had to deal with such issues at work. I have years of experience within the banking industry, but the clients I deal with have always been the MNCs, the government bodies, the hedge funds and other banks.
Minibonds worry: 'How is the layman supposed to beware when the prospectus is filled with jargon that even the sellers do not fully comprehend?'
MY WIFE wife and I are joint account holders of Maybank Singapore. We purchased $100,000 of the Minibonds Series 5 from Maybank's investment banker around August last year. We were under the impression then that these were supposedly very safe bonds.
Every few months, I would even call up Maybank to ask about the performance of our Minibonds and whether I should still hold on to them. Each time, I was informed that these bonds were still sound, and there wasn't any need to bail out.
Now that Lehman Brothers is bankrupt, and the public disclosure that our Minibonds investment has, in fact, nothing at all to do with bonds, but are instead Collateralised Debt Obligation (CDO)-related derivatives, we are extremely disappointed, distressed and upset with Maybank's lack of professionalism and poor product knowledge.
The investment advisers are more interested in closing the deal and going through the motions during the investors' risk-analysis.
We fully understand the concept of buyer beware. However, in this situation, how is the layman supposed to beware of what they're being sold when the 60-odd-page prospectus is filled with legalese and technical jargon that even the sellers themselves do not fully comprehend?
Ngo Chee Keong
We call these clients the "big boys". A big boy is a strong, powerful client who knows, or should know, what he's doing.
When we do business with a big boy, we usually sign some form of a "big boy" letter (or other written agreement). In a big boy letter, both parties confirm to each other that they understand the risks of the transaction; neither party is advising the other party; and neither party is relying on the other party for advice.
The idea is that neither party will hold the other party responsible, for any losses that it may subsequently suffer.
"Big boy" letters are not possible with the man in the street. If a bank sells complex financial products to Mr Tan Ah Kow, the law requires the bank to assess the customer's needs; to recommend suitable products, and to give appropriate advice. Furthermore, complex financial products generally can't be sold to the retail public, unless they satisfy a range of regulatory requirements.
One of the common regulatory requirements is a prospectus. This is a thick document with a lot of small print describing the financial product in great detail and setting out all the relevant risks. If a bank fails to disclose all the relevant risks, it could be committing a criminal offence. Therefore banks are very eager to disclose as many risks as they can think of.
Consequently, prospectuses tend to grow into very long, detailed documents. Inevitably the prospectus is packed with technical terms. Finance is a technical field, and if you want to properly describe the risks fully and properly, you will need to use all the technical financial terms.
And of course, the thicker and more technical the prospectus is, the less likely it is that the retail customer will actually attempt to read it. That's the irony.