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Exploring the AR model

After charting the ins and outs of the limited licence application process in the last issue, Mitchell Turner now examines the authorised representative (AR) model, detailing what accountants need to know if they want to go down this path. 

Exploring the AR model
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  • mitchell
  • March 17, 2016
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As the clock keeps ticking and the licensing deadline looms large, many accountants will be eager to continue offering SMSF services with as little hassle as possible. As accountants are time poor, many will find obtaining their own limited licence far too onerous and time consuming. In addition, it can be expensive to obtain, and the costs associated with maintaining a licence can be a significant burden too.

Of course, obtaining a limited licence is not the only option; aside from referring out SMSF work, accountants can choose to become an AR of a licence holder. There are many factors which could influence an accountant’s decision as to which path to follow: resources, cost, risk, ease of implementation and autonomy are some of the most common. So what are the distinguishing factors that set apart the AR model from the limited licensing process, and how can an accountant find the best fit for their firm?

Where the benefits lie

Put simply, an AR is authorised to offer services under an existing Australian Financial Services Licence (AFSL) holder. There is no need to obtain a licence of your own, and the onus for ongoing maintenance

of the licence lies with the licensee. Risk is understandably a major consideration for many firms, and it’s easy to see why some accountants would be eager to avoid navigating the Corporations Act.

A limited licence holder bears the risk of compliance with the relevant legislation, which is of course associated with severe penalties for potential breaches, something that the vast majority of firms simply cannot afford to deal with. Upon becoming an AR, the licensee you are aligned with bears this risk.

Their focus is to ensure that their representatives comply under the respective licence; the onus is on them to put in place the adequate measures to support these practices and ensure that the correct procedures are followed.

It is the IPA’s view, detailed in their Removal of Accountants’ Exemption and Licensing under the Future of Financial Advice Reforms – FAQs document (published in October 2015), that the AR model provides accountants with ease of implementation and the convenience of technical and practical support, saving them valuable time and resources.

“Otherwise (as an AFSL holder), you have to do all of this yourself, outsource it, or employ someone to do all the compliance work. It is not worth your professional time to do this.”

Adding to this Stuart Abley, head of AFSL licensee SMSF Advice, says “the main thing to point out is that in becoming an AR, accountants can access the expertise and efficiencies of a proven advice system”.

“They can outsource all the conditions around the advice process through an AR model, instead of having to go and reinvent the wheel if they got their own licence, because an AR model provides all of that to you. “We just feel that with the compliance and regulatory burden in running your own licence, accountants are just crazy to take that on,” Mr Abley adds. It is important to note that the path you decide to follow will rely heavily on the type of advice and services you wish to offer to current and prospective clients. An accountant who wishes to advise on limited recourse borrowing arrangements (LRBAs), contribution strategies or transition to retirement strategies, may find a limited licence to be insufficient and too restrictive.

In regards to the limited licence itself, the IPA notes that “it was designed to include fairly basic or essential services, including whether an SMSF is appropriate, setting it up, advising on general and life insurance, basic deposit products and simple managed investment schemes”.

When do I need to act?

Time is of the essence, with the 30 June 2016 deadline fast approaching. While the AR option can save accountants time, it’s important not to underestimate how long it will take to attain the required RG146 qualifications associated with this approach. These qualifications are needed in order to understand the related areas of SMSF advice and services that they plan to continue offering.

The time it takes in order to complete the AR process will vary from accountant to accountant, and will of course depend on the current education standards that a particular practitioner has met.

Mr Abley estimates that it takes an approximate period of three to four months to navigate through the education process, although it may take longer to become fully inducted and ensure that the proper measures are in place within the business to adhere to the model.

“Some people will say that it can be done a lot quicker, but we have found that in working with accountants who are of course running their firms it generally takes that amount of time because we need to manage that in conjunction with their existing business.”

Finding the right fit

Accountants will be eager to align themselves with the licensee that best understands their needs and is an ideal fit for the culture of their firm. There is of course a plethora of options on offer, which can be overwhelming in its own right for any accountant looking to solidify the future of their practice.

As with the firms that accountants themselves operate within, the licensees will range from smaller, boutique offerings to large scale operations, and all should be researched and carefully considered before a decision is made. Some licensees are themselves aligned to or owned by larger institutions, may be associated with a household name, and may provide a larger scale and range of resources.

Often these institutions offer a wide range of licensees in order to suit and cater to the different types of clients and practices that seek particular services.

Meanwhile, other licensees are not aligned to a major institution and as a result, may not always be able to offer the same solutions and services that a larger counterpart could potentially provide.

Mr Abley believes that there are a multitude of questions that accountants should be asking when shopping around for the right fit, particularly enquiring if the licensing model is accountant specific.

“I think they (accountants) should be asking questions about accountancy-related services, in terms of the advice and technical services on offer.

“We have found that accountants require a lot of strategic advice and SMSF expertise services, because really the reason they’re becoming licensed is to focus on these SMSF advice opportunities. “If you’re going with a model that’s not focused on accountants, you’re probably going to be provided with a lot of traditional financial planning services, and those types of services aren’t really relevant,” he says.

Grant O’Riley, managing director of fellow AFSL licensee Capstone Financial Planning, adds that it is particularly important to ensure that a licensee has sufficient resources on hand to deliver the relevant training needed in order to satisfy the short- and long-term expectations of ASIC.

Considering the cost

“In becoming an AR, it’s important that you understand the costs you will incur when joining a licensee. Licensees generally charge either a flat fee per annum and/or a percentage of revenue received from clients,” says Mr O’Riley.

There is no one set price when undertaking the authorised representative process. Different levels of licensing and authorisation come at different prices, and the IPA has provided members with an approximation of the annual costs accountants should expect to incur. Entry level is generally $3,000-$5,000, the cost which most closely mirrors that of obtaining a limited licence. Middle or strategic

level authorisation is generally around $10,000-$12,000 and a comprehensive level of authorisation is generally within the realm of $18,000-$25,000.

The IPA makes particular note, however, that a practice would only be paying these fees if they were making a profit from the advice. “This is advice which you are currently not able to provide under the accountants’ exemption and you should view licensing fees as an investment in your business, not as a cost of doing business.”

Addressing the concerns

There has been some concern that operating as an authorised representative lacks the freedom of a limited licence, and may influence the activity of an accountant. Many accountants are concerned that they will be pigeon-holed into a restrictive set of products and will be forced to upsell particular products and services in order to satisfy their respective licensee.

“I can understand the concern, I really can,” notes Mr Abley, “but it is very misunderstood by the

industry in today’s environment. “You can’t meet best interest duty by pushing a particular product upon a client, so that’s why I think it’s a bit misunderstood now. You can’t do those things in today’s advice environment with FOFA, it’s just not feasible.”

Mr Abley himself notes that accountants value their freedom in the SMSF area and appreciate a set of circumstances that allow them to continue operating with minimal hindrance. However, Mr O’Riley warns that some licensees may not always provide the desired flexibility.

“Should you choose to be authorised by a licensee who is institutionally owned, you may find the business environment can be more restrictive.

“Large groups may have substantial resources; however this usually comes at a cost.

If your qualifications allow you to be authorised to provide product advice, what is the licensee’s approved product list (APL) and research process?” he asks. Accountants may also seek to leave the door open for future decisions within the business which may subsequently lead to a desire to switch licensees or sever ties with their respective model.

Situations and disputes may arise as to who owns the client base if an accountant chooses to disassociate with their licensee.

Mr Abley notes that some licensees may not offer a smooth transition, and the exit process is “a very relevant point that they should investigate with any licensee they’re considering”. Mr O’Riley agrees. “Will the licensee provide you the opportunity to change your authorisation at a later point in time if you meet the training and education criteria?”

Arriving at a decision

The IPA has indicated that the AR model is particularly suitable for those accountants eager to expand beyond the restrictions of a limited licence, and that characteristic alone may be the deciding factor that influences their decision.

After examining the risk, autonomy, training and restrictions that a prospective licensee provides, accountants will put themselves in the best position to make an informed decision – one that provides flexibility in the future and a solid foundation for advisory services.

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