Business·GO PUBLIC

'I feel duped': Why bank employees with impressive but misleading titles could cost you big time

Mike Black says he feels "completely betrayed" after investing almost $1 million with the help of an RBC Dominion Securities “vice-president” who he later learned is only licensed as a salesperson.

Most financial professionals in Canada are licensed as salespeople with no fiduciary duty to clients

Go Public | Deceptive employee titles

6 years ago
Duration 2:56
In Canada, most financial professionals are licensed as salespeople with no fiduciary duty to clients

Mike Black says he feels "completely betrayed" after trusting RBC Dominion Securities employees with impressive-sounding titles to manage his life savings, only to earn far below the market average for six years.

"I worked 35 years at two jobs and saved up a considerable amount due to the fact that I didn't have a pension and would need money for retirement," said Black, who managed to put away nearly $1 million.

An RBC "financial advisor" — "advisor" with an "o" rather than an "e" is important, but more on that later — invested his money in mutual funds, but when the portfolio performed poorly for three years and Black threatened to leave the bank, he was sent to an RBC "vice-president" who would manage his money.

Black received a financial plan that claimed his nest egg would earn "about six per cent in annual interest" when invested in different mutual funds, mostly owned by RBC.

His investments actually earned less than three per cent and cost Black more than $30,000 in fees over six years.

"How is it that you end up getting a return of this kind over this period of time, when this is to be managed by a professional and we pay such high fees?"

All they are doing is selling what the bank wants them to sell.- Mike Black, RBC investor

Turns out, the RBC vice-president was actually licensed as something called a "dealing representative" — a salesperson.

"I feel duped," Black said. "My portfolio is my pension. All they are doing is selling what the bank wants them to sell."

In an email to Go Public, RBC said its "internal review found that the portfolio was appropriate based on the risks and objectives the client communicated to us."

Deceptive employee titles

A recent report by the Small Investor Protection Association found there are 121,000 people registered as financial professionals in Canada, and the vast majority are registered as dealing representatives — salespeople licensed to sell financial investments.   

Only about 4,000 of these registered financial professionals have a fiduciary duty, which is a legal obligation to act in the client's best interest.

Larry Elford says thousands of bank employees across Canada are salespeople with fancy titles. (Dave Rae/CBC )

"The game today is to earn clients' trust," said Larry Elford, a former certified investment manager with RBC and lead researcher of the SIPA report. "And never let them know that you are actually a commissioned salesperson and you don't have to honour that trust."

The stakes are high, says Elford, who points out that a two per cent management fee on mutual funds typically cuts an investor's retirement fund by about half over a 35-year period.

What's in a vowel?

A common trick for misleading customers, according to Elford, is the banking industry's use of the term "financial advisor" — spelled with an "o."

He says "advisor" is an unregulated title that anyone can use, whereas the title "adviser" — spelled with an "e" — can only be used if the employee has a fiduciary responsibility to the client.

"Advisors can sell you the third, fourth, fifth or least beneficial product to you," Elford said. "They do that a great deal of the time if it makes them more commissions, or if their bank manager is telling them they need to sell more of the house-brand product."

The Ontario Securities Commission confirms that "adviser" is a legal term under securities law that describes a person or company that is registered to give advice about securities, whereas "advisor" is not.

In an email to Go Public, the Canadian Securities Administrators confirmed that it does not regulate most titles used by employees in the financial industry.

'It's completely about selling'

Many bank employees who've contacted Go Public say they act more like salespeople than anything else because of pressures from "high up" to hit revenue targets. CBC is concealing their identities to protect their jobs.

"I would say 90 per cent of my day is trying to hit targets," said a financial services representative at TD Bank.

"I have to go [meet with] my manager daily and go through each customer that's scheduled for me and see how many 'units' I can get from that customer."

I had zero training and had to learn on the go.- TD financial advisor who recently quit

She says if a client has money in a savings account, she's encouraged to get them to buy TD mutual funds instead of giving financial advice she thinks would be better, such as paying down a credit card or high-interest loan.

"It's completely about selling," she said.

A TD financial advisor who quit last month says he was "thrown into the role" and expected to learn on the job.

A TD financial services representative who contacted Go Public said 90 per cent of her day is spent trying to hit sales targets. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

"I had zero training and had to learn everything on the go," he said.

A CIBC financial advisor says he spends his day selling investments that may not be in his customers' interests, even though they think they're getting impartial advice.

"The term financial advisors is bank jargon for salesperson," he said. "At least in other industries they are more open about it. You sell cars? Well, you are a car salesperson. We are not advising people on anything. We are just trying to make sales."

An RBC branch manager in B.C. says tellers are now called "client advisors," and are required to get a licence to sell mutual funds.

"How do you expect a 20-year-old employee who's getting paid $12 an hour to provide advice with the title 'client advisor,' when they're really just equipped to sell? It's not fair to anybody … you're putting clients at risk."

In a statement, RBC says it "stands behind the advice and support" its "investment advisors provide to clients." 

Bank employees at all levels at BMO and Scotiabank told Go Public they, too, feel their titles are misleading because they're mostly under pressure to sell bank-owned mutual funds and other products to boost the bottom line.

In previous statements to Go Public, TD, CIBC and Scotiabank said their clients are their top priority and they expect their employees to behave ethically. 

'Self-regulating doesn't work very well'

Stan Buell, founder of the Small Investor Protection Association, says he's heard too many stories from people who thought a financial advisor was going to look out for their best interests.

Stan Buell, founder of the Small Investor Protection Association, says bank employees should be called salespeople if that's their role.

"I've talked to hundreds and hundreds of people who've been victimized," Buell said. "And every one trusted their advisor."

He said he doubts any of the advisors were actually advisers — with an "e" and a fiduciary duty. "They're all salespeople, trained in sales."

He says banks and other financial institutions need tougher regulations.

"Self-regulating doesn't work very well," he said. "It must be an outside agency that is not composed of the industry to have the power to handle complaints, to investigate and authorize and even pay restitution for the victims of the financial institutions."

As a start, Buell would like Canada's big banks to be more transparent and call their employees salespeople, not "advisors" or other titles that suggest they're working in the customer's interest when they're actually serving their employer.

Mike Black says he took his money out of those fee-based accounts at RBC Dominion Securities and hopes for better luck with his next investment.

But his experience has left him shaken. 

"I've always been very trusting, conscientious, both me and my wife. We've walked the walk. And quite frankly, I feel like it's been a hit and run."

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Erica Johnson

Investigative reporter

Erica Johnson is an award-winning investigative journalist. She hosted CBC's consumer program Marketplace for 15 years, investigating everything from dirty hospitals to fraudulent financial advisors. As co-host of the CBC news segment Go Public, Erica continues to expose wrongdoing and hold corporations and governments to account.

With files from James Roberts