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Independent financial advisers to start charging hourly fees as commission ends

Come January, investors will be plunged into a new year's revolution in the financial industry.

Despite its innocuous title, the "retail distribution review" which takes effect on January 1 has led to huge changes in how independent financial advisers do business. They'll now be outlawed from accepting lucrative commissions from big investment houses.

The downside is that from now on, no-one will enjoy the illusion of "free" advice. IFAs will have to start charging hourly fees or take a chunk off your initial investment and future returns. That leaves a daunting choice: pay up front for expert advice, or join the ranks of do-it-yourself investors.

Some 11% of Scottish investors have already decided to go it alone, according to new research from brokers Bestinvest, and 20% say they'll be "much less likely" to use an adviser once explicit fees come into force.

The majority (70%) of Scots ditching professional advice will turn to a growing breed of online platforms, which host a wide range of funds.

Some style themselves discount brokers, like Bestinvest or Hargreaves Lansdown; others such as Alliance Trust Savings, Interactive Investor and AJ Bell do not, and new platforms are now emerging.

They can't meet up with you face-to-face, get to know your financial situation, or be punished by regulators if what you buy proves unsuitable. Yet many now offer a dizzy array of tools, from detailed fund analysis to personalised reports, to help you through the investment jungle. So could this option be better value? Sadly, it's not that easy to figure out.

One of the newer providers, rPlan, has produced a comparison tool to show how much you'll pay with 32 platforms/brokers out there.

It shows an investor using their full Isa allowance over 10 years would pay a huge £15,441 at Nationwide, while Cavendish Online, which uses the Funds Network platform, charges just half that amount – £7519. The second cheapest option is with Club Finance, charging £8508 over 10 years.

A big factor is the commission still paid to platforms, and to firms selling directly without advice, by the investment houses – and whether the service you choose will rebate it to you.

Interactive Investor rebates all its trail commission and some of its platform charges, but it bumps up costs with a £20 fee for each quarter, plus £10 for every trade. It's a similar story at Alliance Trust Savings, which rebates all commission and charges £10 (plus VAT) per quarter, with trades pegged at £12.50 a go.

AJ Bell's Sippdeal rebates commission across its Sipp, Isa, Junior Isa and dealing accounts, and charges £9.95 for dealing (£4.95 for frequent traders).

Billy Mackay, director at AJ Bell, says investors should look out for the new "clean share classes", gradually appearing on platforms, which strip out the commissions and offer the same investment at a lower price. "The investor should be asking the platform to clarify whether they plan to make these funds available for retail investors, and what charges apply if they use them," he said.

The "clean" share might halve the 1.5% annual charge on a fund to 0.75% – but there might be extra administration costs, which could have a particular impact on smaller portfolios, Mr Mackay says. "You've really got to look at your circumstances and do the maths".

For some people, it might be worth paying a bit more for clear information on the complex world of investments. Nick Curry, director at rPlan, says: "We accept that online platforms can't replace advisers, as we don't understand your personal situation.

"But there is a lack of simple information about the basics out there. When I was 28 and started investing, I thought 'where on earth do I start?' In my experience, the bigger traditional platforms only offer technical information for fund geeks."

Rplan will set out how much a fund will cost in pounds and pence whenever that information is available, as well as its risk profile and how it has performed over five years. It rebates half of its commission, capping it at £15 a year.

Bestinvest offers a varying rebate, depending on your fund selection, but it can produce a detailed report looking at how your portfolio stacks up in terms of asset allocation, risk, quality of holdings and cost.

Fundexpert.co.uk is also packed with research, ratings and reviews of funds, costing 0.5% per annum. "Investors must decide if all of this is worth it", says managing director Brian Dennehy. "If not, they can use people like Cavendish, who are no frills, little cost."

But platforms aren't without their critics. Investors "orphaned" from expensive advisers will be exploited by the cosy relationships between the fund industry and platforms, says the True and Fair Campaign.

Gina Miller of SCM Private, its co-founder, says: "Many will be forced to invest via execution-only platforms, frequently characterised by conflicts of interest where fund managers pay the platforms for 'shelf space', and where the recommendations frequently mislead consumers into believing they are receiving unbiased and independent advice."

But not all platforms are taking these incentives, says Mr Curry. "Our attitude is that it would be a shame to lose out on investing just because you're scared of not knowing enough information."

The facts

One-third of consumers do not realise financial advisers are paid through commissions and see advice as 'free'

Of the one in six investors using a financial adviser, half of those believe the advice is free

One in three investors will be unwilling or less likely to use an adviser when explicit fees are charged

Half of investors want other services including some personal contact as well as an online platform

source:FSA/BestInvest

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