Investor protection, Singapore style

July 7, 2009

Who needs a whole new government agency to protect  consumers from irresponsible banks? Authorities in Singapore have taken a refreshingly straightforward approach in tackling banks deemed to have been less than scrupulous when selling structured notes dragged down by the failure of Lehman Brothers: they banned them.

The Monetary Authority of Singapore on Wednesday banned 10 banks from selling structured notes until they can prove that they have improved processes to highlight the risks involved. Banks including DBS and ABN Amro, now part of Britain’s Royal Bank of Scotland, are out of the business for at least six months. Hong Leong Finance receivd a two-year ban. (The full list is here.)

The so-called Lehman Minibonds are one of the many scandals triggered by the Wall Street investment bank’s collapse. They were sold as bonds that offered principal protection and an attractive rate of interest. In fact, they were complex structures supported by synthetic CDOs with Lehman acting as a swap counterparty. When Lehman filed for bankruptcy, the notes collapsed.

The MAS report is fairly dry, but nonetheless it is fairly clear that banks either didn’t understand the risks of what they were selling, or failed to tell their clients.

Some of the specific failings highlighted by the MAS include:

a) risk ratings assigned by some financial institutions to some series of the Notes that were inconsistent with risk warnings stated in the prospectus and pricing statement;

b) insufficient steps taken by some financial institutions to ensure that all their financial advisory representatives were properly trained before marketing and selling the Notes; and

c) weaknesses in how some financial institutions ensured that their financial advisory representatives were properly equipped with accurate and complete information about the Notes.

This is some consolation for the 7,000-odd Singaporean investors who lost money on the notes. Though 67 per cent of investors have received compensation, they have got just 30 per cent of their money back.

The Singaporean approach has two advantages: it forces banks to compensate investors who received bad advice, and prevents the banks from repeating their mistakes, at least for the time being. But given the horrible complexity of the Lehman notes, it seems highly unlikely there will ever be enough bankers with the qualifications to sell them, let alone retail investors with the sophistication and risk appetite to buy them. Perhaps the MAS should have just banned them for good.


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