Dodgy financial advice at the Commonwealth Bank, a weak and ineffective regulator and the government’s attempts to roll back consumer protections are leaving those seeking advice in a quandary.

They must be asking themselves how they can find an adviser they can trust. A 500-plus page report by a Senate committee into the Commonwealth Bank’s financial planning arm and the regulator, released last week, aired allegations of fraud, forgery and a cover-up after consumers received bad advice from some of its planners between 2003 and 2012.

The report also details how the regulator, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, took far too long to act on tip-offs from inside the bank. It underlines how consumers have to make their own inquiries and do their homework to find an adviser they can rely on.

The minimum legal standard of advice is low. Minimum training standards are woeful. Someone can become a financial planner after completing a two- or three-week course. But perhaps the biggest problem is the product sales environment in which most planners work.

Peter Johnston, the executive director of the Association of Independently Owned Financial Professionals, which represents about 1000 planners, says the advice market can be divided into two broad categories – planners who work for independently owned planning firms and those – the vast majority – who are aligned with one of the big financial institutions. “Independently owned advisers operate their own licence and can independently decide what products and strategies they will use,” Johnston says. He says aligned advisers usually recommend their employer’s products.

Claire Mackay, a certified financial planner and a chartered accountant at Quantum Financial, says consumers need to be aware of “structural bias” in much of the planning industry, where advice is linked to sales. Many people like the familiarity of a big brand and a big institution standing behind the advice, but they need to be aware they will often pay an “asset-based fee” – a fee charged as a percentage of the money under advice that is ongoing rather than paid upfront.

She says that this can mean aligned advisers may not give suggestions such as paying down the mortgage or buying an investment property because they can only capture a fee by pushing products. Many non-aligned advisers, including Mackay, ask clients to pay a fee each year for advice. She says some people baulk at paying upfront. However, it is value the client is getting for the money that counts.

Many people paying commissions and asset-based fees do not really understand how much they are paying, she says. Plus, some people with simple affairs can do a lot on their own: “Not everyone needs a financial planner but everyone needs a financial plan,” she says.

There are some good tools available for those with fairly straightforward financial circumstances. A good starting point is ASIC’s MoneySmart at where there is a budget planner and a mortgage calculator as well as other calculators, such as those for superannuation and retirement. You can also get simple superannuation advice over the phone. Taking steps to understand your finances puts you in a better position to find the right adviser, Mackay says. All types of business models of planning firms can have conflicts of interests.

It was, for example, mostly non-aligned advisers – receiving high commissions – who recommended investing in property developer Westpoint, which collapsed in 2007. And it was mostly accountants who recommended the tax-effective agribusiness schemes such as Great Southern and Timbercorp that collapsed in 2009.

Members of the leading planner professional association, the Financial Planning Association (FPA), follow a code of practice that is far above the legal minimum. About 5600 FPA members also hold the certified financial planner (CFP) qualification, which the association promotes as the “gold standard” of financial planning. New practitioner members of the FPA must have a relevant university degree.

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Posted by John Collett – The Age on 15th December, 2014