AFS licences: time to plug in

More than a year into the new Australian Financial Services (AFS) licensing framework, most accountants have yet to commit. But the first practical learnings are beginning to appear.

Many accountants want to provide clients with investment advice, particularly advice on setting up self-managed superannuation funds. For a large number of accountants, that desire is driven by their clients, who look to them for advice. For some accountants, investment advice provides an important income stream; for others, it’s a straightforward extension of the work they already do.

But the arrival of the Australian Financial Services (AFS) licensing framework means accountants must make a choice. Federal Treasury estimates around 10,000 individual accountants may apply for a licence to continue offering advice.

Vicki Stylianou, IPA executive general manager, leadership, sees the cost of AFS licensing as an investment in a revenue stream that will grow the sustainability of accountancy practices. With about 60 per cent of SMSFs being set up by accountants, Stylianou says financial advice is a natural progression of this work.

“With a lot of accounting work becoming highly commoditised, accountants need to question what compliance business will be worth going forward,” she says.

Picking your option

So, 15 months after AFS licensing began, how many accountants are making licensing choices and what are they choosing?

Initial expectations about the number of limited licences being issued have not been realised. However, one firm that will be using a limited licence is Perth-based accounting firm Ledger Corporate. It will do so in an interesting way: through a partnership arrangement with local financial planner Michael Bowler. Once Bowler’s AFS licence is approved, he will move his established clients within the banner of the merged entity. It’s still early days, but Bowler expects the costs of operating a limited AFS licence to be shared between both entities, based on their ongoing usage.

Meanwhile, many in the industry suggest around 100 accountants have become authorised representatives of an AFS licence holder, such as a dealer group. The dealer groups are fighting to lure more accountants into their circle.

Stevie-Ann Dovico is the manager for strategic growth and offer development at one of those dealer groups — Securitor, owned by Westpac (and an IPA partner). Depending on size and operating model, says Dovico, working with a dealer group can be a better and more affordable way for accountants to widen their financial advice offering.

Based on her numbers, being authorised under a dealer group arrangement could halve the cost of operating under the licensing regimen. It also relieves accountants of the administrative processes and gives them more time to concentrate on providing advice and writing a statement of advice (SOA).

“The accountant doesn’t have the expense and effort of getting and maintaining an AFS licence, and the dealer group can secure their referrals and indirectly the distribution,” says Dovico. *If you only want to offer ‘class-of-product’ advice, a dealer group path may be more appropriate.”

Equally important, with accounting firms selling at about 0.9 to one times revenue, compared with 2.5 to three times for financial advice businesses, Dovico says that bolting on a financial planning practice should give a generous return when it comes time to exit the business.

Making it work

With more than 50 SMSF clients, Brisbane-based sole trader Mara Denham, of Denham and Associates, is one who has decided that becoming an authorised representative is the best road ahead. “I think all clients need some form of advice,” she says.

Some 18 months after completing the required RG146 course and becoming an authorised representative, she knows she has plenty of work to do to build up the advice side of her business: so far, she has earned $1,000 from financial advising and has completed one SOA.

Denham says costing out the value of a client remains a big challenge. It comes down to what the client is prepared to pay – which sometimes remains unclear until after the work is done. And she has found professional indemnity insurance can cost up to double what it is for an accountant.

“It’s possible for a sole practitioner to make it work, but wearing two hats makes it difficult to promote both,” she says.

Nevertheless, Denham sees financial advice as a way to replace declining revenue from traditional
accounting fees. She expects that he decision to go down the AFSL path will eventually pay dividends, with recommendations embedded within an SOA continuing to add value to her client relationships over time.

Picking the right rep

Stewart Chandler, of compliance support group AFSL Compliance, says it’s important for accountants to remember there is no one-sizefits-all’ dealer group model. He say accountants should understand the business model of a dealer group before joining it and should ask questions such as: “how does the dealer group make money?” and “what will I be expected to give the dealer group in return for licensing?” Also important is the level of support provided by the dealer group.

Many accountants are either struggling with the choice or putt it off entirely. Some will leave the advice space, but for those who want to stay, the IPA’s Stylianou warns against leaving a financial planning move too late. The RG qualifications can take up to 12 months to complete. And, she po out, clients who want advice are likely to move to those firms tha can offer it.

Whatever you opt for, there’ a clear competitive advantage in making an early choice.

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