The Consumer Advisory Panel (the Panel) would like to submit this document in response to 3 specific questions that the FSRA Board indicated it would be interested in the Panel addressing:

  1. What factors or changes affecting consumers in financial services sectors are you currently monitoring?

  2. What are the primary risks facing consumers in financial services sectors? Do you have suggestions on how to evaluate and address these risks?

  3. What factors would you use to measure the success of consumer protection in the financial services sector?

Factors or changes currently affecting consumers

  1. Digital Transformation: The ongoing digital transformation in the financial services industry is reshaping how consumers access and interact with financial products and services. The proliferation of fintech innovations, mobile banking apps, and online investment platforms has expanded consumer choice and convenience. However, it also presents challenges related to data privacy, cybersecurity, and digital literacy, particularly for our most vulnerable consumers.

  2. Interest Rates and Inflation: Stubbornly high interest rates and ongoing inflationary pressures continue to adversely impact consumers' borrowing costs, savings rates, and purchasing power. Many consumers face serious challenges managing their budget, accessing affordable credit, and preserving the value of their savings.  Some may be turning to unregulated financial products such as payday loans, private lenders not realizing potential unintended consequences.

  3. Regulatory Reforms: Regulatory reforms and policy changes at the provincial and federal levels have significant implications for consumers in Ontario. For example, recent reforms to mortgage regulations, consumer protection laws, and investment suitability standards may affect consumers' access to housing finance, their rights as borrowers, and the quality of financial advice they receive. It can be very difficult for a financially naïve consumer to successfully navigate this dynamically evolving financial regulatory landscape.

  4. Market Volatility and Risk: Volatility in financial markets and economic uncertainty can significantly impact consumers' investment portfolios, retirement savings, and overall financial well-being. Fluctuations in asset prices, currency values, and interest rates may create opportunities and risks for consumers, depending on their risk tolerance and investment objectives. Consumer education and guidance on risk management and diversification strategies are essential in this volatile environment.

  5. Debt Levels and Financial Stress: High levels of household debt and financial stress remain significant concerns for consumers in Ontario. Rising housing costs, slow wage growth, and inevitable unexpected expenses can contribute to financial hardship and debt burdens for many households. In this context there is a heightened responsibility on governments and regulators to promote responsible lending practices, provide debt relief options, and increase financial awareness to help consumers manage debt effectively, access financial literacy tools/resources and build financial resilience.

  6. Climate Change and Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Investing: An increasing appreciation of /interest in environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors is influencing consumers' investment decisions and driving demand for sustainable finance solutions. Consumers are seeking investments that align with their values and contribute to positive social and environmental outcomes. Financial institutions are responding by offering ESG-themed products and incorporating sustainability criteria into their investment strategies. It is important that these products and services are regulated in a manner that ensures they provide appropriate disclosure and transparency.

  7. Demographic Shifts: Demographic shifts, including an aging population and changing workforce dynamics, are impacting consumers' financial needs and preferences. An aging demographic, baby boomers in particular, rely heavily on their defined benefits pension plans where they exist. Financial advice provided to this age cohort must be tailored to their unique asset decumulation needs to support their requirements. For their part, younger generations may prioritize digital banking, socially responsible investing, and flexible employment arrangements. Structuring financial offerings to meet the diverse needs of different demographic groups is essential for promoting financial inclusion and equity.  For many Ontarians English may not be their first language and newcomers may have a natural distrust of government institutions so awareness raising efforts should be written in plain language and focus on ways to reach immigrants/newcomers.

  8. Rapid immigration: Ontario’s rapid immigration reflects four major phenomena:

    1. Permanent Residents entering with education and skills that are in high demand
    2. Newcomers who may “mistrust” Government or Government agencies and may be reluctant to interact with regulators
    3. International Students coming for a good quality education, with many hoping to become Permanent Residents
    4. International Refugee fleeing physical and economic oppression
    5. Temporary Foreign Workers, many of whom aspire to become Permanent Residents

    This surge of newcomers requires financial service providers to adapt their products, services, and marketing strategies to cater to the unique preferences and requirements of immigrant communities This could include offering multilingual services, culturally sensitive financial advice, and specialized products tailored to immigrants' needs. Furthermore, many of these immigrants will be especially vulnerable to exploitation or predatory practices and may not appreciate/understand the regulatory system and how regulated entities are held to high standards and provide recourse where appropriate. FSRA needs to ensure that the financial entities it regulates adopt practices and incorporate safeguards that are specifically designed to protect the interests and serve the needs of these new consumers.

These factors and changes underscore the complex and dynamic nature of the financial services sector in Ontario and highlight the ongoing challenges and opportunities currently facing both consumers and regulators.

Identifying, evaluating and addressing risks

  1. Mis-selling and Misrepresentation: Consumers may be sold financial products or services that are unsuitable for their needs or that are misrepresented in terms of their risks, costs, or benefits. This can lead to financial loss and undermine consumer trust in the industry.

    Evaluation: Conduct regular audits and reviews of sales practices, including product disclosures and suitability assessments. Monitor complaints and feedback from consumers to identify patterns of mis-selling.  Consumer engaging a “mystery shopper” vendor to complement regular audits/reviews.

    Addressing: Strengthen regulatory requirements for product suitability assessments and disclosure standards that are easily understood. Empower consumers with the capacity to identify inferior service and products and the means to communicate their complaints to providers and regulators.

  2. Fraud and Scams: Consumers are vulnerable to various forms of financial fraud and scams, including identity theft, phishing schemes, and Ponzi schemes. Fraudulent activities can result in significant financial losses and damage to consumers' creditworthiness.

    Evaluation: Monitor trends in financial fraud and scams, including emerging tactics and targets. Collaborate with law enforcement agencies and industry stakeholders to heighten public awareness and engagement in combating these nefarious schemes.

    Addressing: Enhance consumer awareness campaigns on common fraud schemes and red flags. Strengthen authentication and verification processes for online transactions and account access. Implement fraud detection and prevention measures, such as transaction monitoring and identity verification tools.

  3. Data Privacy and Security Breaches: Consumers' personal and financial information may be at risk of unauthorized access, disclosure, or misuse due to data breaches or inadequate security measures. Data privacy violations can result in reputational damage, financial harm, and loss of consumer confidence.

    Evaluation: Conduct risk assessments of data privacy and security practices across the financial services sector. Monitor compliance with regulatory requirements, such as data protection laws and industry standards.

    Addressing: Enhance data security protocols and encryption standards to protect consumers' sensitive information. Provide consumers with transparent disclosures about data collection, storage, and sharing practices. Implement robust incident response plans to mitigate the impact of data breaches and notify affected consumers promptly.

  4. Market Volatility and Financial Risks: Financial consumers are exposed to risks related to market volatility, economic downturns, and asset price fluctuations. Poor or uninformed financial decisions can lead to financial losses and emotional distress.

    Evaluation: Establish a regulatory environment that prioritizes the identification of consumers' risk tolerance and financial objectives through robust suitability assessments and meaningful financial planning consultations. Monitor market trends and economic indicators to anticipate potential risks and opportunities.

    Addressing: Cultivate more informed and empowered financial consumers by encouraging consumers to seek professional advice from regulated financial service and product providers and maintain robust and ongoing oversight of those providers.

  5. Complexity of Financial Products: Financial products and services can be complex, with intricate terms, conditions, and fee structures that consumers may find challenging to understand. This complexity can lead to confusion, misinterpretation, and suboptimal decision-making, putting consumers at risk of choosing products that are not aligned with their needs or goals.

    Evaluation: Assess the comprehensibility and transparency of financial product disclosures, including key features, risks, and costs. Conduct consumer testing and surveys to gauge consumers' comprehension and satisfaction with product information.

    Addressing: Simplify product disclosures and communications to make them more accessible and understandable for consumers. Require regulated entities to provide clear explanations of product features, risks, and fees using plain language and standardized formats. Offer resources, such as brochures, videos, and interactive tools, at the point of sale to help consumers make informed choices. Consider if other consumer protection options that may be beyond FSRA's authority, such as cooling off periods for product sales or cancellation of contracts entered into due to unfair or deceptive practices, should be prioritized for government consideration.

  6. Behavioral Biases and Financial Decision-Making: Consumers may exhibit behavioral biases, such as overconfidence, loss aversion, and present bias, that influence their financial decision-making and lead to suboptimal outcomes. These biases can manifest in impulsive spending, inadequate savings, and irrational investment choices, undermining consumers' long-term financial well-being.

    Evaluation: Conduct behavioral research and surveys to identify common biases and decision-making patterns among consumers. Analyze transaction data and behavioral metrics to assess the impact of biases on financial behaviors and outcomes.

    Addressing: Develop communication resources that will help consumers recognize and mitigate cognitive biases in their decision-making. Require regulated entities to design financial products and services with built-in features, such as automatic savings plans and default options, that leverage consumers' behavioral tendencies.

Collaboration among regulators, industry participants, and consumer advocates is essential for identifying the key risks facing Ontario financial service and product consumers in Ontario. Once identified, FSRA is in a position to thoughtfully evaluate these risks and, if deemed necessary, implement appropriate measures to address them.

Measuring success

  1. Consumer Awareness and Understanding: The level of consumer awareness and understanding of their rights, responsibilities, and available recourse mechanisms is a crucial indicator of consumer protection success. Surveys, focus groups, and educational initiatives can be used to gauge consumers' knowledge of financial products, services, complaints processes and regulatory protections.

  2. Complaints and Dispute Resolution: Monitoring the number and nature of consumer complaints and demographic information where appropriate filed with regulatory authorities, ombudsman offices, and industry dispute resolution mechanisms provides insights into the prevalence of consumer issues and the effectiveness of resolution processes.

  3. Enforcement Actions and Penalties: Tracking and publishing enforcement actions taken against financial institutions or individuals for regulatory violations, such as mis-selling, fraud, or non-compliance with consumer protection standards, helps assess the robustness of regulatory oversight and deterrence mechanisms. The imposition of penalties or sanctions serves as a deterrent against misconduct and reinforces accountability.

  4. Market Conduct and Compliance: Assessing the adherence of financial institutions to regulatory requirements and industry codes of conduct provides a measure of market conduct and consumer protection compliance. Regular audits, examinations, and compliance reviews, as well as independent programs like mystery shopping can identify systemic issues, gaps in controls, or emerging risks that may compromise consumer protection.

  5. Financial Inclusion and Accessibility: Evaluating the extent to which financial products and services are accessible, affordable, and suitable for diverse consumer segments, including vulnerable populations, is essential for promoting financial fairness and equity. Monitoring indicators related to financial inclusion, access to affordable services, and protection from exploitation or discrimination helps identify areas for targeted interventions and support.

  6. Financial Well-being and Resilience: Assessing consumers' financial well-being, including their ability to meet financial obligations, manage debt responsibly, and save for future needs, provides insights into the effectiveness of consumer protection measures in promoting financial resilience. Surveys and indicators related to household income, savings rates, and debt-to-income ratios can be used to measure financial health.

  7. Consumer Satisfaction and Trust: Tracking consumer satisfaction levels and trust in the financial services industry, regulatory authorities, and consumer protection mechanisms helps gauge the effectiveness of consumer protection efforts in fostering confidence and trust. Consumer surveys, sentiment analysis, and stakeholder consultations can provide qualitative feedback on consumer perceptions and experiences.

  8. Tracking Trends in Pensions: Using the broad application of mathematical, computational, and other quantitative data collection methods to better understand the planning and funding of all retirement plans in Ontario. This will allow for better focus on the measurement and observation as it relates to where and how consumers use these and related financial products and services now available.

By monitoring and analyzing some or all of these measures, regulators, policymakers, industry stakeholders, and consumer advocates can gain a better understanding of the effectiveness of consumer protection efforts in the financial services sector.  This type of evidence-based understanding provides the basis for developing the informed policymaking, targeted communication campaigns and risk-based oversight and enforcement that will produce superior consumer outcomes.