How to spot an offshore financial con

A Swiss street scene

There’s a book that all aspiring investors should read. It’s called “Where are the customers’ yachts?” and the sub-title is ‘A Good Hard Look at Wal Street’, by Fred Schwed Jr.

Schwed was a stockbroker and an author, his book is still, some 80 years after its first publication, described by leading investors like Warren Buffet as a timeless and authentic description of the investment culture on Wall Street.

The title refers to the supposed question a visitor to New York posed on seeing rows of luxury boats belonging to bankers and brokers.

It is a slightly tongue-in-cheek study of what is wrong with the investment business, a coruscating look at the finance industry. Today, if Schwed were still alive, his book might be entitled ‘Where were the regulators?’ because it is clear that the silver-tongued financial services salespeople (let’s not call them investment advisers, that suggests they have your interests at heart) continue in business unchecked. The regulators are basically asleep on the job.

Even in Switzerland, regulators have failed to deal with offshore wealth managers who target expatriates living here

Want to make a million quickly? Come up with a complicated fraud and diddle lots of people. Leave a complex money trail across multiple jurisdictions and most regulators will spend years working out who has the authority to investigate cross-border transgressions before they do anything as mundane as starting to look for you.

So, why am I writing about this? Well, it’s only the second working day of the year today and already I’ve had six phone calls from financial services companies falsely claiming to be ‘following up on our emails’ and ‘further to our discussions last year’. Six. In two days.

Cold calling is an invariable red flag for me. What a shame there are precious few others I could refer to, like a comprehensive international listing of every conman ever penalised for investment fraud or breaching regulatory requirements in any major jurisdiction across the world. What a service that would be.

Such a book doesn’t exist. Because regulators aren’t interested. It’s too much like hard work for them.

So the age-old warnings must apply:

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Offshore, out of sight, out of order

My fifth call of the month from an offshore financial adviser. These are the people who lurk outside the highly regulated ambit of UK financial services industry legislation, in just about every place where Britons work abroad – Hong Kong, Dubai, Guernsey, Malta, most major European capitals.

What’s wrong with them? Well, how long have you got? They’re usually unqualified, mostly paid by commission so hugely incentivised to sell unsuitable, cost-loaded products. Oh, and they’re also unregulated. Or at least not registered to give financial advice – with no onshore financial regulator bothered enough about checking up on what they do. In some countries it’s worse – they’re often self-regulated. All of which amounts to much the same thing: there’s no protection available for consumers when it all goes wrong. And it does go wrong, frequently. Continue reading

Brits abroad are prey for poor advice


It must be the warm weather that brings them out. It’s February and 15 degrees in Switzerland, bright sunshine and not a cloud in sight. And the phone’s ringing.

It’s yet another cold call, the fifth this week, from one of the earnest young Britons hired in droves by the usually greedy, often desperate financial services organisations that reside in lightly-regulated financial markets around the world.

Wherever you find Britons working abroad, you’re sure to find a cluster of these financial outfits, mostly managed by oleaginous shysters who couldn’t hack it in London, and staffed by ingenues with barely a grasp of finance know-how beyond the obligatory in-house crash-course in hard-selling. Continue reading

Pensions misery for millions

Millions of Britons expect their pensions to be worth less than they expected when they took the policies out. And more than eight out of ten Britons contributing to a pension, some 16.7m people, expect a shortfall in the value of their policies when they retire.

If people’s worst fears are realised, pensioners will be £159bn worse off. The headline figure sounds dramatic but reflects a growing gulf in the actual value of pension plans against the projected value when they first took them out. Continue reading