After a two month consultation period, the WIA was officially launched on 14th February 2013. Certainly an association that attempts to offer guidance and confidence to investors, who are all too often misled, or at worst defrauded by unscrupulous ‘wine investment companies’, should be a very welcome development. Sadly this new initiative has to date been a missed opportunity.
The cold calling – an unsolicited phone call – of potential investors is one of the main curses of alternative investments such as wine, carbon credits and land banking. Having followed dubious drinks investments since 1996, cold calling is the principal way that investors have been persuaded to buy either inappropriate wine investments, which in some instances have never existed. Quite rightly there is a widespread distrust of companies that use cold calls. I certainly would not consider buying anything from a cold caller. I get rid of cold callers with various degrees of politeness or abuse depending upon my mood.
It is, thus, very disappointing that the WIA’ code permits unsolicited cold calling. It has been suggested to me that permitting cold calls should not be ‘a deal-breaker’ with respect to cold calls. Rather that what really counts is important is having a code in place. This is not my view nor, much more importantly, the view of the UK’s Financial Services Authority (FSA), which bans unsolicited cold calls for investments purposes. Under FSA Guidelines only cold calls can only be made to customers who are anticipating a call. See the FSA’s one-minute guide to cold calling here: (http://www.fsa.gov.uk/smallfirms/resources/one_minute_guides/advice_sales/cold_calling.shtml)
‘How do we define cold calling?
Cold calling is where a financial promotion is made during any dealings with a customer which the customer did not begin.
However customers can be approached if they expressly request it. Failing to tick a box to say that they do not want to be contacted, or relying on standard terms that you may contact them again is not sufficient to allow you to cold call a customer.
What are the specific rules for investment business?
Investment rules allow for three scenarios where cold calls could be made:
the promotion is to an existing customer who anticipates receiving a cold call;
the promotion relates to packaged products that do not contain higher volatility funds, or to life policies not connected to higher volatility funds; or
the promotion only relates to readily realisable securities (but not warrants) or generally marketable non-geared packaged products.
(Les 5 comment: for investment purposes a cold call can only be made to someone who is expecting such a call. Instances two and three are not relevant to wine investment)
Apart from the type of product being promoted, we also have rules about how the call must be conducted. Regardless of whether a call is a ‘cold call’ or expected by the customer, the caller must:
only make contact at an appropriate time of day;
identify themselves and the firm they represent at the start and make clear why they are calling;
ask whether the client would like to continue or terminate the call, ending the call if asked to do so; and
give a contact point to any client who they arrange an appointment with.
In contrast here is the WIA’s rather different definition of a permitted investment cold call (the bold is my addition):
The Association defines a cold-contact as a telephone call (or other communication) made to a private individual where there has been no previous communication with that individual, and where the individual has not provided his telephone number and/or given prior permission for the telephone call. Private individuals are able to opt out of receiving cold-calls by registering with the Telephone Preference Service (TPS). The Association will carry this advice on its own website, together with a link to the website of the TPS.
I am registered with the Telephone Preference Service (TPS). Being registered with TPS certainly does not prevent me from receiving numerous cold calls, although of course many of these calls may originate from outside the UK.
Had the WIA banned its members from making cold calls they would have made a very clear statement. A position that would have been clear and easy to promote – we don’t cold call. If you get a cold call from someone trying to sell you wine investments you will know that they are not a member of the WIA. As it now stands a cold caller may or may not be a member of the WIA. A confusing position for the old and vulnerable, who are especially at risk from cold calling.
Members of the WIA have told me that their strategy is to construct a big tent and that once they have a sizeable number of members ‘we can tighten up the rules once we get everyone in’. I am not convinced that this is a strategy that will work. Permitting cold calls is likely to put off companies who do not approve cold calls from joining the WIA, while encouraging those who do use cold calls to join. Much better to have been clear from the outset that the new Wine Investment Association would ensure that its code was in-line with that of the FSA.
Indeed Albany Portfolio Management Ltd, one of the WIA’s founders, does not use cold calls because they find them counterproductive and alienate potential customers. A pity they were unable to persuade the other three founding companies – Culver Street Trading, Provenance Fine Wines and Vin-ex – of the wisdom of their approach.
The WIA has also claimed that a ban on cold calling is unenforceable and that you ‘cannot stop cold calling’. It is obvious that the WIA has no regulatory powers and that given modern communications it is impossible to prevent all cold calling but that shouldn’t prevent an investment association taking a stand. After most of us disapprove of crimes like burglary and murder, even though we know there is no way we can stop them from continuing to happen.
The National Fraud Investigations Bureau has welcomed the creation of the WIA as reported in harpers here (http://www.harpers.co.uk/news/news-headlines/13486-wia-launches-wine-fraud-initiative):
Director of the NFIB, Det Supt Dave Clarke, said: "Fraudsters will always follow the money, with wine investment just the latest in a long line of investment opportunities that are being exploited and corrupted to the detriment of the industry.
"The NFIB sees an auditable framework of self regulation as a real and positive step towards maintaining and increasing consumer confidence, and assisting us to highlight those who do not operate to the necessary high standards."
Although I understand why the police welcome organisations that attempt to provide self-regulation in alternative investments not covered by the UK Financial Authorities, in this instance the WIA has set the bar too low and, in allowing cold calling’ they have not adopted ‘the necessary high standards’ cited by Det Supt Clarke.
The WIA code concludes thus: ‘in the course of its commercial activity no Member shall act permit any action to be carried out on its behalf, which, in any way:’ ‘brings, or may bring, the Association into disrepute’.
Permitting cold calling will bring the WIA into ‘disrepute’.