Axa fined £1.8m for bad advice on Isas

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Thousands of customers passed on from building societies and banks to Axa Wealth were not warned of the risk of investing in Isa funds and investment bonds and are in line for full compensation from any losses.

Axa Wealth, part of the global Axa Group (Milan: AXA.MI - news) , has been fined £1.8m by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) for failing to give suitable investment advice to customers passed on to it from banks and building societies.

The regulator said 26,000 customers were wrongly advised in a range of investment products while Axa (Paris: FR0000120628 - news) staff pocketed lucrative bonuses for making the sales.

According to the FCA, customers were put into stocks and shares Isas, open-ended investment companies (Oeics) and investment bonds without Axa assessing their attitude to risk and losses.

The customers were mainly nearing retirement and largely not experienced investors. But Axa failed to confirm how much risk its customers were prepared to take or explain the dangers in clear terms.

The FCA said Axa sold around 37,000 products to 26,000 customers between 15 September 2010 and 30 April 2012 in branches of Clydesdale Bank, Yorkshire Bank and the West Bromwich Building Society.

A total of £440m was invested across the products, meaning the average customer had around £17,000 of savings with Axa in these investments.

The FCA said customer losses due to Axa ’s failings may be low due to movements in the stock market since the advice was given. But the regulator added any customer who lost money would be fully compensated.

Tracey McDermott, the FCA’s director of enforcement and financial crime, said the regulator has acted pre-emptively to ensure customers are provided with an opportunity to avoid potential losses during future stock market downturns.

"Axa fell short of its responsibilities to its customers, many of whom were elderly, retired and financially inexperienced. Its failures resulted in an unacceptable risk of Axa selling products which were unsuitable for its customers. Axa’s failures were avoidable, coming despite repeated warnings from the FCA’s predecessor to the industry about investment advice.

"The FCA will continue to take tough action against firms who fail to comply with their responsibilities to ensure that consumers get a fair deal."

A spokesperson for Axa said the firm accepts the FCA's findings. "We take regulatory compliance very seriously and regret that the customer advice provided by the bancassurance division between September 2010 and April 2012 did not meet the high standards expected by the FCA," said the spokesperson.

"As the FCA has noted, customer detriment may currently be low as was the number of complaints Axa has received. We will be writing to our affected retail banking customers and will review the advice provided to them during that period should they wish us to do so."

The fine is part of a drive by the FCA to stamp out poor practice. Over the past couple of years a number of high street banks and building societies have been caught misleading customers with poor advice about investment products.

Earlier this year the regulator took action against Santander (Madrid: SAN.MC - news) after a mystery shopping exercise revealed that many bank customers were given poor advice on Isas, pensions and investment plans.

Barclays (LSE: BARC.L - news) was slapped with a £7.7m fine for widespread investment advice failings on the sale of two Aviva (LSE: AV.L - news) funds in 2011.

Earlier this year regulations were overhauled in an attempt to clean up the industry. The FCA has banned financial advisers from taking commission when selling investment products in an attempt to remove bias and improve the advice being given to savers.