Originally Published 2022-12-08 10:00:49 Published on Dec 08, 2022
FinFluencers: What code of conduct should we have?
A financial influencer or 'FinFluencer', is a person who gives information and advice to investors on financial topics -- usually on stock market trading, personal investments like mutual funds and  insurance, primarily on various social media platforms. They might be compensated by the business offering the product or service. Recently, on the sidelines of an industry conference, a senior official of the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi) indicated that they are working in forming guidelines for ‘finfluencers’. They have reason to worry that such unregulated and unlicensed self appointed advisors are putting consumers financial investment at risk.

Current Challenges

For the sake of transparency, and tracking all the influencers, one needs to assume that any code of conduct will also include all influencers from the mainstream media (TV, Print, Digital). Almost every Indian business TV channel offers stock-tips. Many TV anchors run stock discussion or pure corporate results programs during trading hours, and are influential in their own right. Same argument can be made for those writing about specific companies in print or other digital media platforms. Media-journalists (oxymoron ?), thanks to their “informant network”, might have access to inside news about the companies. Is there any code, importantly traceable and implementable, to check if they misuse such info - especially to influence financial outcomes - for their personal gain or to their employer ? With corporate ownership of media space increasing further, how does one sift content from lens if the media owner is benefiting from content promoted ? But then, some of those influentials (or media elites) might even take umbrage with this very idea and claim that their “independence and constitutional right to work” will be impacted by such a (potential) regulatory code. While there has to be respect for independence of journalism, the sector cannot use that veneer to peddle content or commentary, that influence financial / investment decisions.

Global regulatory learnings

In Australia, finfluencers could face up to five years in jail, if they provide financial advice without a prior license. The European Securities and Markets Authority has defined what constitutes investment recommendations, how to post those advice on social media, and has spelt out penalties for any breach. Earlier this year, the German Federal Financial Supervisory Authority (Bundesanstalt für Finanzdienstleistungsaufsicht – BaFin) informed its consumers with a letter stating that “ among the financial influencers, who regularly and frequently post information and investment tips" and that there are "many self-proclaimed experts on the go" in addition to genuine experts. Singaporean and Chinese regulators also have guidelines for FinFluencers. While, the Dutch Financial Supervisory Authority (Autoriteit Financiële Markten – AFM) did a research and published its findings saying; “There are only a few finfluencers who post neutrally and there is often a lack of transparency."

First Principles for a code of conduct :

  • Definition of FinFluencers : should be clear, stand test of judicial - regulatory scrutiny. Should cover all mediums that has consumer access for financial - investment communication. Content definition : is critical. It should cover all forms of content - right from advertisements, brochures, data put up on websites or social media, endorsements by celebrities or brand ambassadors, news programs in mainstream media that promote any specific view about a financial investment.
  • Consumer protection : in an era where attention s are lesser, and where consumers believe in everything that’s fashionably presented in the media, especially social media, isnt it unfair to expect the regulator to protect the consumers from themselves ?
  • The need to have transparency and be data-led communication : Assumably the consumers have limited knowledge about financial products and services, or who may be financially vulnerable – any code of conduct should ensure that any financial & investment should be “truthful, balanced, data-led”.
  • “Will you sell this to your sibling” : test is a simple logic that can be embedded into a code of conduct. If any influencer won’t adopt their own advice for their investments, then they cannot be giving it.
Regulations could be effective, only when the financial regulators have adequate technological framework for proactive real-time market surveillance capabilities, and in-house talent to assess such data into insights to take necessary consumer protection measures. And importantly to carry ahead with regulatory provisions to hold such offenders accountable, quickly. Hopefully, it starts with human values and self regulation. Well, let’s assume that it’s missing or defunct. And, moral righteousness!! Well that’s for another day.

So, the likely Code of Conduct

  • Everyone including mainstream journalists, TV anchors and guest panellists, social media commentators - who speak or write on anything around financial outcomes related to any investments should be registered investment advisors. This should even include even those who write in print / digital media about personal finance and investments.
  • All such content could carry disclosures about capability and registration details of those commentators. Every content should disclose the commentator’s investment or monetary link to the content.
  • The regulator should define all financial products, services, investment boundaries of such products and services which should be covered by any Finfluencer code. It ideally should include traditional banking, insurance, Mutual funds, AIF offerings, loan products including housing, unsecured, secured, BNPL products, share trading, opinion about any listed entity, forex trading, cryptocurrencies and futures options.
  • Taking a leaf from what the regulator expects from directors and KMPs of asset management industry - can those designated as influencers by the regulator, declare their investment portfolio periodically ?
  • Assuming that the regulator will have / create their internal bandwidth, can they create a register of FinFluencers and build up that register over time ?
  • Define clearly, without any ambiguity, what constitutes financial and  investment recommendations, and have penalties for any breach. Importantly the regulator should have legal authority for the same (with no offence meant, the bark and bite should go together).
  • Constitute a real-time digital supervisory mechanism for the above regulations to be tracked. If regulator waits only for whistle blowers or complainants to show them the offenders, the rules might end up being tilted in favour of big / influential media houses.
  • Institute an easier way for complainants to send complaints, without any ostracisation if complaint is found incorrect. While SROs can be tasked with forwarding complaints to the regulator, the current SROs like ASCI don’t have a say in media content (except for advertising content).
However, the larger challenge is this: With regulators (the executive) being one of the original Four pillars of democracy, can they effectively counter undue influence of one of the other original four pillars -- the traditional media? With supervisory tech (SupTech), it seems possible. But the regulatory independence and supervisory will, to take such a step, as well as the political nuance of such a possibility, is as good as your guess.
This commentary originally appeared in CNBCTV18.
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