The UK’s regulator, the Financial Services Authority (FSA), has issued a warning on its website about unregulated “sustainable, ethical and alternative” investments. It says: “We are seeing an increasing number of overseas schemes that offer investment opportunities in tree and crop plots abroad, and other ethical investments.
“These schemes may be promoted by an operator ‘cold calling’ with an offer for you to buy a plot on a plantation which harvests agricultural commodities such as teak trees, jatropha, paulownia and biofuels. The investment is usually stated to be low risk but promising high, often guaranteed returns of around 15-25%. The investment period is typically about five years, after which your plot will be harvested and sold on your behalf and the profits forwarded to you.”
They note that some of the schemes being offered to UK investors are structured so they do not meet requirements and therefore then do not have to be registered. However, UK investors should know that the schemes are not covered and they will not be protected by complaints procedures or compensation if things go wrong.
According to the FSA: “We have heard reports of promoters using aggressive, high-pressure sales tactics, and often claiming we do not need to authorise the schemes, as they are not collective investment schemes (CIS). While we regulate CIS, we do not regulate the sale of land, trees or crops.”
The FSA (www.fsa.gov.uk) has been investigating and says that some tree and crop schemes seem to be structured to avoid CIS rules. In simplistic terms, a CIS would be involved if the investors do not have day-to-day control over managing their plot, where investors’ funds are pooled or where the operator is responsible for managing the scheme as a whole.
The regulator wonders how investors do have day-to-day control over business performance, when the plot is thousands of miles away. According to the FSA “We are continuing to look into several schemes to establish whether they are CIS, but we suggest investors treat such opportunities with caution.” It advises that if you think a scheme is suitable for you and you are aware that you may not be protected, you should consult an independent financial adviser or lawyer. It also offers a consumer helpline.
The FSA issued an earlier warning in July 2010 about the rise of unregulated CIS and says: “sustainable, ethical and alternative investment opportunities are increasingly being offered to investors without the protection of UK complaints procedures or compensation schemes if things go wrong.”
COMMENT: This blog supports sustainable, ethical investment 110% and strongly believes individuals have the right to choose what to do with their money and to follow their beliefs. But they need to be aware of the risks, to understand what they are investing in, and to be aware that social business can sometimes be harder to make succeed.