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Toronto's financial district is seen in this file photo. The Financial Consumer Agency of Canada will begin a business practices probe in April, focusing on financial institutions’ business practices regarding express consent and disclosure when dealing with customers. (Galit Rodan For The Globe and Mail)
Toronto's financial district is seen in this file photo. The Financial Consumer Agency of Canada will begin a business practices probe in April, focusing on financial institutions’ business practices regarding express consent and disclosure when dealing with customers. (Galit Rodan For The Globe and Mail)

Federal watchdog to review banks’ sales tactics Add to ...

The consumer protection watchdog that oversees Canada’s financial institutions will review sales tactics after allegations that some bank staff chasing lofty sales goals have felt pressured into behaving unethically.

The Financial Consumer Agency of Canada (FCAC) will start a business practices probe in April. The agency does annual industry reviews; this time, it will zero-in on bank employees’ obligation to get consent and give proper disclosure about fees and costs when selling customers new products.

Regulators have been more alert to issues of consent since U.S. bank Wells Fargo & Co. was fined $185-million (U.S.) over a scandal that revealed the lender had opened about two million unauthorized accounts. So far, nothing points to such large-scale misconduct at Canadian banks, but sales tactics are nevertheless under closer scrutiny.

Recent news reports quoting unnamed bank staff suggest some employees felt such pressure to meet aggressive sales targets that they sometimes broke the rules.

“The law requires that, in order to provide consumers with new or expanded products or increase their credit limits, financial institutions obtain their customers’ prior consent and disclose key information about the costs and charges of the products they are purchasing,” Lucie Tedesco, commissioner of the FCAC, said in a statement.

Ms. Tedesco added: “We will investigate and enforce any incidence of non-compliance.”

The FCAC has been looking into sales practices, particularly when consumers are signed up for products or services without explicitly consenting or being told the cost. Over the past two years, the FCAC has received 142 complaints and inquiries over issues of consent, and 51 about problems with fee disclosure. Of those, all but 13 were lodged against banks.

In early February, the FCAC sent a letter to financial institutions, released publicly on Wednesday, to “reinforce” its expectations that any interaction seeking consent “is clear, simple and not misleading.”

“These issues have been discussed in my recent meetings with the CEOs and boards of Canada’s leading banks,” Ms. Tedesco said in her statement on Wednesday.

The Canadian Bankers’ Association, which lobbies on behalf of Canada’s largest banks, said it looks forward to the review and hopes it will be completed “in a timely way.”

“Canada’s banks will co-operate fully and constructively with the regulator,” Terry Campbell, the CBA’s president, said in a statement. He added: “We are confident that the banks’ strong policies, procedures, and controls are functioning well.”

Banking-related complaints to the Ombudsman for Banking Services and Investments (OBSI), which resolves disputes between many Canadian banks and their customers, increased 6 per cent in 2016, and have risen each year since 2013. Investment-related complaints climbed by 17 per cent, according to the organization’s annual report.

The institution taking the hardest hit to its reputation has been Toronto-Dominion Bank, which built its brand on customer service. News stories by CBC cite current and former TD staff, without naming them, who said that pressure to “squeeze profits” from customers was so intense that they pushed unwanted products on their clients.

Last Friday, after one CBC story was published, TD’s share price fell 5.6 per cent in a single day, to $66 (Canadian) – its largest dip in eight years. In a statement released on Sunday, TD said the bank “does not believe certain recent media coverage is an accurate portrayal of our culture, or that it reflects the experience of most of our colleagues, but we take the concerns very seriously.”

Some bank analysts lowered their target prices for TD shares after the stock suffered, but most chose to reserve judgment for the time being.

“We are inclined to put this situation in the ‘concerned but not panicked’ category for now,” Sohrab Movahedi, an analyst at BMO Nesbitt Burns Inc., said in a research note about TD on Monday. “The market’s rush to judgment, while understandable, may have been an over-reaction.”

But it remains to be seen how analysts will react to broader concerns about sales practices across Canada’s banking sector. The CBC’s latest story says it has received nearly 1,000 e-mails from current and former staff at Canada’s five largest banks describing intense pressure to reach sales targets.

Share prices for each of Canada’s six biggest banks fell modestly on Wednesday.

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