Unregulated investments, many of which are high-risk, not only in the sense of the asset class but also potentially in terms of the underlying assets, and some of which are just outright scams, have become a major problem in the UK. Since the introduction of pension freedoms in April 2015, the UK has seen a growth in unregulated, unlisted, high-yield investments being marketed and sold to members of the public, often as low-risk opportunities. While such investments might seem low-risk at first glance, not least because of the security and assurances set out in the promotional materials, claims of such high returns in an era of low interest rates should raise alarm bells.
Research highlighted by the FCA in 2019 indicated that 42% of pension savers, equivalent to over five million people, could be at risk of falling victim to one or more of the common tactics used by pension scammers. Illustratively, if each of those potential investors had £50,000 to invest, the potential prize for those promoting and running such schemes would be a staggering £250 billion (bn). It’s not surprising that scheme operators, whether scammers or not, might want to access that kind of money.
Classifying such investment schemes is not straightforward, but there are certain features that characterize the problem. There are many types of underlying businesses, schemes and assets on offer such as property development, foreign exchange, cryptocurrencies, agriculture and forestry, precious metals and even sports betting. In terms of property development, there has been a proliferation of unregulated investment schemes marketed as unitized property-backed investments, such as parking spaces in a carpark, storage units, or rooms in hotels, student accommodation and care homes. Typically, investors are offered high-yield bonds or loan notes with a range of maturities, often over a longer term, meaning that capital could be tied up for some time. Advertised returns are regularly up to 10% or more and some schemes include an attractive buyback clause.
Given the underlying income-generating “bricks and mortar” assets, it’s easy to see why such opportunities might be attractive. It’s a logical proposition that appears safe, but the reality may be quite different. If the advertised returns weren’t challenging enough in the current low-interest environment, commissions of up to 20% or more that are usually paid to sales agents or “introducers,” together with sometimes equally high management fees or other payments to the scheme operators, can be crippling, potentially causing a systemic flaw in the investment model. After operating costs have been paid and possibly other debt serviced, the underlying business should have a strong performance to be able to repay the original capital invested—and all of this assumes that the scheme runs perfectly and is not just being a scam from the outset. While some unregulated investment schemes might be well-intentioned initially—potentially adding to the attractiveness of the scheme at the time of promotion—they may go on to face challenges with their investments and their operations.