Category: Newspaper/Blog Articles/Hansard

APRA tightens the screws on superannuation trustees

Australian Financial Review

14 December 2017

Alice Uribe and Sally Patten

Superannuation funds will be forced to disclose and justify their expenditure on items such as marketing, member education, sponsorship, advertising and media as part of a crackdown by the prudential regulator.

In an effort to stop wasteful spending and force super funds to adopt a more business-like approach, the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority said on Wednesday that it planned to strengthen existing prudential standards and introduce a new standard requiring funds to report annually on ways they could improve their performance.

APRA is proposing to require super funds to demonstrate that all spending is monitored against objectives and is successful in meeting those objectives. It is expected that spending on publications such as online news site New Daily, which is owned indirectly by a group of industry retirement schemes, will be included. The New Daily lost $2.7 million in 2017In September, The Australian Financial Review revealed industry superannuation funds spent more than $37 million last yeato promote themselves in the media. Both retail and industry funds spend thousands of dollars on marketing and conferences.

The launch of a consultation package on the proposed revisions to the standards comes less than two weeks after the Turnbull government was forced to withdraw legislation that would have required funds to be more transparent and appoint more independent directors to their boards.

The prudential regulator wants to know more about how superannuation funds spend their members’ retirement savings as part of an ongoing clampdown on wasteful spending by underperforming funds.

The Australian Prudential Regulation Authority has today released a consultation package it says is designed to ensure trustees in the $2.3 trillion sector go beyond “minimum legislative requirements”

“Every super fund member deserves confidence their fund is delivering quality, value-for-money outcomes. APRA’s proposals, supported by our ongoing supervisory focus, will help registrable superannuation entity [RSE] licensees lift their standards for the long-term benefit of their members,” APRA deputy chairman Helen Rowell said.

APRA also proposes widening a current prudential standard to require super funds to make it easier to opt out of life insurance.

“Such practices include insufficient rigour around decision-making and monitoring in relation to fund expenditure, setting of fees and costs and the use of reserves, and how expenditure decisions are made to secure sound outcomes for members,” APRA said in a discussion paper outlining its proposed prudential framework changes.

APRA has proposed the addition of a new prudential standard that will require all registrable superannuation entity [RSE] licensees to assess every year the outcomes of their members, as well as new practice guides that it says will assist trustees with business planning and “outcome assessment”.

Industry Super public affairs director Matthew Linden welcomed the proposed standards and APRA’s commitment to enhanced transparency and member outcomes but argued that “it was vital the measures demand high standards from all APRA-regulated super funds in respect to all of their members.” He said he was concerned that savers not in default products would not be given the same protections.

“A two-tiered regulatory framework which involves lower standards and expectations in respect to ‘choice’ superannuation products that account for most system assets is no longer appropriate,” he said.

Eva Scheerlinck, chief of the Institute of Superannuation Trustees of Australia, said: “For any outcomes test to be meaningful, it must apply to every superannuation option and have long-term net returns as the number one priority.”

APRA wrote to the boards of Australia’s worst-performing superannuation funds in August summoning them to individual meetings to discuss their failings, and requiring trustees to make “quick” changes or be shut down.

“These registrable superannuation entity [RSE] licensees will be required to develop a robust and implementable strategy to address identified weaknesses within a reasonably short period and to engage more regularly with APRA to monitor the implementation of the strategy,” Ms Rowell wrote.

APRA said its proposals were independent of, but aligned with, the legislative proposals which the government hopes to reintroduce in 2018.

“In considering the final form of the standards being issued for consultation today, APRA will have regard to both feedback from consultation on its own proposals and the final form of any new legislation passed by the parliament,” it said in a statement.

In July, Financial Services Minister Kelly O’Dwyer put trustees on notice that they will face civil penalties for breaches of director duties, be forced to certify every year that they are looking after the financial interests of members and hold annual member meetings as part of government reforms designed to strengthen the governance of Australia’s $2.3 trillion retirement savings system.

The proposed start date for the new prudential measures is January 1, 2019.

Superannuation’s greatest benefits are restricted to industry insiders

The Australian

3 December 2017

Judith Sloan – Contributing Economics Editor

This week in Sydney, the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia held its national conference. There were nearly 2000 attendees, which tells you a lot.

There is no doubt that superannuation is one of the biggest gravy trains in Australia. With more than $2 trillion under management, the industry supports an army of fund managers, administrators, trustees, lawyers, accountants and executives.

It’s a truly beautiful industry, with guaranteed cashflows coming in like the tide courtesy of the superannuation guarantee charge, now set at 9.5 per cent of earnings. The industry is wont to slap itself on the back. Australia’s superannuation arrangement is among the best in the world, if not the best. Mind you, this assessment tends to be from the point of view of the providers rather than the beneficiaries. But what’s not to love about a privatised industry based on obligatory saving on the part of the vast majority of workers?

There is a lot of ex post rationalisation that goes on about superannuation in Australia, and there was plenty going on at the conference. The reality is that compulsory superannuation began in this country as a result of a high-level industrial relations stitch-up that had nothing to do with rational retirement incomes policy.

In exchange for forgoing a pay rise, workers were awarded 3 per cent of their pay in the form of superannuation. It had always stuck in the craw of then treasurer Paul Keating that only better-paid workers and public servants received the benefit of superannuation while lower-paid blue-collar workers received nothing. In the context of what was a relatively derisory Age Pension, it was not difficult to appreciate his concern. (The Age Pension is now much more generous.)

There was also some economic nonsense put out at the time that superannuation was a means of solving Australia’s saving problem. The Labor government even commissioned a report on the issue by economist Vince FitzGerald. It turned out that in the context of a floating exchange rate, the argument that there was a need for government policy to boost saving (to finance the current account deficit) evaporated. We don’t hear any more about the role of superannuation in promoting saving.

And let’s not forget that while superannuation may promote saving in the form of superannuation, it also can encourage offsetting incentives for people to take out bigger house mortgages than would otherwise be the case, for instance. The argument is that because people know they will receive a hefty lump sum from superannuation on retirement, they can use this, or part of it, to pay down the mortgage. There is clear evidence that more and more people have outstanding mortgages into their 60s. Of course, this
partly undermines the principal purpose of superannuation, which is to fund retirement incomes.

The development of the superannuation industry in this country has been essentially chaotic and ad hoc. Few details were worked out initially, particularly in relation to who would manage the funds, how they would be managed and taxation arrangements.

The union movement clearly saw an alternative business model and pushed the industry super funds to have pole position. This was achieved by virtue of the default fund status given to them in industry awards and enterprise agreements. This protected position continues although self-managed superannuation has eroded their dominance.

The changes that have occurred through the years are almost impossible to track. We have moved from the 3 per cent contribution rate to 9.5 per cent. The industry — as opposed to the members — is desperate to see that figure lifted to 12 per cent, a move that was delayed by Joe Hockey as treasurer. The full 12 per cent is not slated to become compulsory until July 2025.

Aghast at this prospect, ASFA chief executive Martin Fahy told the conference that “all the vocal criticisms of financial services, and within that superannuation, means that superannuation is vulnerable to short-term populist thinking, where somebody would try to appeal to people with an offer to have a sudden increase in take-home pay at the cost of long-term retirement funding. We need to be conscious of that because the 9.5 per cent super guarantee levy won’t get us there. We need to get to 12 per cent.”

This raises the question about where we are going when it comes to superannuation. It was only after more than two decades of compulsory superannuation that the government decided to legislate the purpose of superannuation “to provide income in retirement to substitute or supplement the Age Pension”.
Whether this objective really gets us anyway is unclear because a dollar supplement to the Age Pension would meet the test. The government is forcing people to give up 9.5 per cent of their current pay (and the industry wants this to rise — good luck with that in the context of low wage growth) to provide a potentially meagre supplement to the Age Pension. It is understandable why people may be querying the whole basis of superannuation.

The industry is also frightened at the prospect of being dragged into the banking royal commission. But superannuation is, after all, providing financial services, banks are involved in superannuation and there is even talk of superannuation funds providing debt finance for companies and home buyers. It would be an artificial distinction to exclude the broader superannuation funds from the inquiry.

One useful line of inquiry would be to examine the excessive fees and charges that the superannuation funds impose on members, thereby limiting their final payouts and incomes in retirement. By international standards, these fees and charges remain extremely high even though they have come down slightly with the rise in funds under management.

And let’s not forget superannuation’s role in insurance where members are forced to take out death and disability cover unless they undertake the laborious process of opting out. This arrangement was a clear favour given to the industry by the previous Labor government — thanks, Bill Shorten — but creates a clear distribution of benefits to older, better-paid workers from young, low-paid workers who really don’t need insurance in most cases.

Then there are the complex arrangements in relation to taxation and contribution limits that this government has made much worse. By lowering the concessional contribution cap to $25,000 a year, the proportion of the population who will be totally self-reliant in retirement in the future will probably drop even further from its modest projected figure of 20 per cent.

In combination with other restrictions, superannuation has clearly lost its allure as an investment vehicle for many individuals. And the clear message is that the government is not to be trusted in this area. After all, Financial Services Minister Kelly O’Dwyer, speaking at a previous ASFA conference, described superannuation tax concessions as a gift from the government.

There was a strong message in this statement and it raised fears that future governments would seek to impose higher taxes on present and future superannuation members.

The bottom line is that superannuation in Australia has grown like Topsy but with little rhyme or reason. It’s the best game in town for those who are employed directly or indirectly in the industry, and it’s a great arrangement for trade unions, which continue to haemorrhage paid-up members. Whether it’s a boon to present and retired superannuants is an open question.

(emphasis by Save Our Super)

How to save less and retire seven years earlier

The Australian

2 December 2017

James Gerrard

It shouldn’t be this way but our new superannuation system with its series of caps and reduction in pension access has thrown up some unlikely outcomes — the contradiction that you may be better off having less money saved if you want a more comfortable retirement.

If you play your cards right and work the rules, you can hit a savings sweet spot and maximise your retirement income through a mix of private savings and age pension. Not only that, but you also may be able to retire seven years earlier than you thought.

In 2006, the super changes brought in by the Howard government simplified the retirement system that over time had built up a large number of complexities such as reasonable benefit limits.

Save Our Super head Jack Hammond, a retired QC, says: “The rules were set in a strategic framework of lengthening life expectancies, rising incomes and expectations of higher retirement living standards, so that people could save for themselves, with declining reliance on the age pension.”

The more you saved, the more you would have in retirement. The age pension would kick in to supplement your base level of income but wasn’t designed to replace the incentive to save and become self-funded.

Today, Hammond believes super and Centrelink changes are counter-intuitive and “short-sighted, lacking proper long-term modelling, and have resulted in the odd way we have with the way retirement income is received”.

“It’s been a race to the bottom as both major political parties turn superannuation at best into a budget proposition rather than a longterm savings policy that it was designed to be,” he says.

From January 1 this year, the means testing of pension benefits was changed. The government reduced the maximum amount of assets you can have while still receiving a part age pension. In addition, it accelerated the rate of reduction in pension entitlement for those with assets over the cap for a full age pension. They changed from $1.50 reduction in fortnightly pension for every $1000 of assets over the cap to $3 reduction for every $1000 over.

People in retirement usually generate income from two sources. The first is accumulated savings, such as investment property, term deposits and super accounts; the second is the age pension. For a homeowner couple who meet all other eligibility rules, assets below $380,500 (excluding the family home) result in a full age pension, while a part age pension is received with asset levels up to $830,000. Previously, up to $1,178,500 in assets could be held before the pension was cut off completely.

The result: retirees who have reached age pension age are caught in a trap where they are penalised for having built up more savings by having their age pension cut off much faster, and at much lower asset levels.

Save Our Super, with the help of Sean Corbett, an economist with more than 20 years’ experience in the super industry, has modelled retirement income levels based on a mix of age pension benefits and drawdown of super at a rate of 5 per cent a year, the legislated annual minimum drawdown percentage for those 65 and older.

They found that depending on your marital status and housing situation, there were optimal levels of savings to maximise retirement income via a mix of super and age pension benefits.

● Single person with home — no more than $300,000 in super to get $33,958 a year income.

● Single person renting — no more than $550,000 in super to get $42,549 a year income.

● Couple with home — no more than $400,000 in super to get $52,395 a year income.

● Couple renting — no more than $650,000 in super to get $60,833 a year income.

To highlight the disadvantage of having more assets: for a couple who own their house and have $800,000 in super, their estimated annual income is $41,251, whereas if they have only $400,000 in super their estimated annual income increases to $52,395. This is because a couple with $400,000 in super would get 94 per cent of the full age pension payment, while a couple with $800,000 in super would get just over 1 per cent of the full age pension payment.

So here is a legitimate strategy: to access super tax free, you must be over 60, fully retired and receive a super pension, technically known as an account-based pension. But to receive the age pension, for those born after January 1, 1957, you must be 67.

Knowing where your savings sweet spot is likely to be at 67 allows you to plan early and potentially have an early retirement, drawing down on super in those earlier years of retirement to hit the sweet spot by 67. In other words, if you had $800,000 in super at 60, you potentially could retire at 60, spend $400,000 on living expenses, travel and renovating your home. When you reach 67, you have worked your super balance down to $400,000, which is the savings level sweet spot for a couple who own their home.

Crucially, this is if you’re happy with the sweet spot income, which is $52,395, you are willing to rely on the government not changing the rules again, and you do not aspire to having substantial savings that you can dispose of as you like.

There is also a breakthrough point on the upper end whereby you can generate more than the savings sweet spot level of income, but the wealth needed is quite a jump. For a homeowner couple, to generate more than $52,395 a year income you are estimated to require at least $1,050,000 in super.

James Gerrard is the principal and director of Sydney financial planning firm

(emphasis by Save Our Super)

Superannuation industry faces more critics

The Australian

29 November 2017

Glenda Korporaal

When leaders of the $2.5 trillion superannuation industry gather in Sydney today for the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia’s annual conference, the increasing regulation of the industry will be a key theme.

Australia has one of the best retirement savings systems in the world — a compulsory superannuation regime that is widely accepted and has increasingly focused ordinary people on the importance of putting money away for their future. But the danger is that constant regulatory changes, the progressive cutting back of tax concessions, criticisms of the system and now the prospect of another round of politically generated inquiries will erode confidence in a system working well.

There is always room for improvement. The compulsory 9.5 per cent needs to move up to 12 per cent to generate more adequate levels of savings, and there needs to be more focus on generating post-retirement income products.

But the system that has built up in the past 30 years has generated an impressive capital pool of $2.5 trillion and meant that Australians have been far more focused on saving for their retirement than they have ever been before.

Superannuation is an industry that involves a high level of public trust and needs good regulation.

But the unexpected tax changes under the Turnbull government announced in the 2016 budget and that came into force this year have shaken the confidence of many people about making extra voluntary contributions.

There is also uncertainty about what might come out of the Productivity Commission’s review of the efficiency of the superannuation system.

The commission is expected to deliver an interim report early next year and a final report later in the year. That report has the potential to deliver recommendations for more regulation and changes.

As ASFA chief executive Martin Fahy points out, there has been much criticism that the super system is not working because the government is still spending significantly on the aged pension.

But the fact is that compulsory superannuation — and the broader savings culture it has generated — is resulting in more people moving from the full aged pension to a part pension and, over time, to becoming self-funded retirees.

As Fahy points out, while the amount being paid in pensions is large as a percentage of the economy, particularly going into the future, it is set to be far less than in many other OECD countries.
The new level of concern is that superannuation is in danger of being drawn into the attacks on the banking system.

What started out as a criticism of the activities of the big banks is in danger of producing yet another layer of regulation and control of the superannuation system.

There is a danger that Trump-like populism will not only erode confidence in the system but lead to more regulation that could inhibit the growth of the industry and its potential to play a more effective role in the economy.

In a surprise move in this year’s budget — particularly for a conservative government — the Coalition announced the banking executive accountability regime, which will give the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority the ability to review the appointment of bank executives and their remuneration packages.

There is increasing concern that this will all too easily roll over into the superannuation and insurance industries. And increasing anti-bank sentiment, which is playing into political uncertainty in Canberra, now seems almost certain to draw in the superannuation industry in any inquiry to be announced.

It is one thing to question the banks’ role in Storm Financial, or to raise questions around practices adopted by CommInsure, or the bank bill swap rate allegations, or bank ATM fees, or the allegations made by anti-money laundering agency Austrac against CBA.

But just how this should lead to an inquiry or even a royal commission that takes in the superannuation industry, which has already been subject to a raft of reviews and regulatory tightening over the past decade, defies logic.

There is also a difference between banking and superannuation at the grassroots level. While Australians may have complaints with their banks — from fees to issues around loans, and concerns over the financial planning industry — there has not been a groundswell of member complaints about super funds per se.

The superannuation system is not broke and there is a danger that the rank populism we are now seeing amid the increasing political uncertainty in Canberra can add to an erosion of confidence in the system that is already occurring as a result of the constant government changes to the super tax regime.

Super industry leaders argue that reviews of the super system be linked to the five-yearly intergenerational report. This would provide some consistency in the logic around any changes to the system.

Fahy argues that the super industry needs to redefine itself as a retirement savings industry with a broader focus on issues such as aged care and how people manage their finances while in retirement.

The increasing longevity of the population has created big issues to deal with.
What is needed is an approach that takes a broad look at the challenge of our ageing population and our retirement system.

The issue needs long-term thinking that builds on the bones of the good system we already have in place — not short-term populism where various political agendas might undermine confidence in the system.

(emphasis by Save Our Super)

Compulsory superannuation is Keating’s NBN

Spectator  Australia

4 November 2017

Michael Baume – Former NSW Liberal Federal Parliamentarian

There was no cost/benefit analysis; it was opposed by the government’s financial advisor, the Treasury; it has ballooned over 25 years into a $2.3 trillion industry with serious systemic problems. But compulsory superannuation is a Labor sacred cow – and is being milked for billions of dollars. It was Paul Keating’s gift to the ACTU’s Bill Kelty and was more about union power and keeping Kelty on side with the Accord than its stated welfare and budgetary objectives. Labor governments have certainly delivered on this key political promise to offset the loss of union power resulting from collapsing membership numbers by delivering increasing financial power to the union movement. As Keating told the 1992 ACTU Congress as his government was introducing his compulsory superannuation legislation: ‘You are losing your industrial muscle; I have given you the opportunity to take on financial muscle. You will get that through your superannuation funds. It is time you entered self-management’. This was consistent with the 1981 ALP Special National Conference paper that: ‘We must recognise at this early stage of union involvement in the superannuation issue that control over the funds will provide unions with considerable financial leverage… to be used to advance the cause of Socialism’. Labor super policy since then has consistently been built around that key pro-union objective, resulting in the phenomenal growth of assets managed by the union dominated Industry Superannuation Funds to $545 billion – most of it coming from non-union members.

As for the stated objective of improving retirement incomes, particularly at the lower end, and cutting the rapidly rising future cost to governments of pensions, Keating eventually admitted four years ago that compulsory superannuation ‘was not introduced as a welfare measure to supplement the incomes of the low paid. It was principally designed for middle Australia, those earning $65,000 to $130,000 a year. This is not to say that those [on lower incomes] should not benefit equitably from the super provisions. They should. But for middle Australia, compulsory super and salary sacrifice was and is the way forward’. And it would also provide a far more rewarding source of the billions of dollars the unions would get to manage than a scheme aimed at low income earners. So much for the need to ensure pensioners are not in poverty; welfare organisations have objected, calling for the cancelling of tax concessions to fund necessary rises in pensions.

So Labor will determinedly block (or repeal) any substantial reform proposals that may emerge from the current enquiry by the Productivity Commission that would damage the present preferred position of union-dominated ISFs – and especially the default arrangements that give them the inside running for the $117 billion dollars a year contributed to APRA super accounts. Meanwhile, widespread concern about the present super system is being expressed across the political, academic and economic spectrum; it is inefficient, too costly, has failed to achieve its social objectives (there has been no marked reduction in retirees receiving the age pension) and has become a monster that is sucking up to an estimated $30 billion a year in expenses out of Australian retirement savings. But repeated and unsettling governmental fiddling with super over the last 25 years has not addressed the basic question: Is the present system in Australia’s best interests; do the benefits to retirees justify the $38 billion dollar a year costs to revenue of super tax concessions plus the consequences of a $117 billion a year reduction in current workers’ household incomes through compulsory super instead of higher wages. 25 years of Keating’s compulsory super has yet to demonstrate that its benefits to retirees and welfare savings are ever likely to exceed its costs. Headlines like ‘A super fail: 80 per cent retire on benefits’ and ‘Why do we have the world’s most expensive super?’ have been followed by Peter Costello’s public attack on the ‘gross inefficiency’ of the Australian super system, recommending that the union-friendly default arrangements should, instead, go to a government-administered fund; the very successful Future Fund, which he chairs, costs far less to run than the rest of the industry. Don’t hold your breath.

Labor’s surprise advantage: Playing to asset owners

The Weekend Australian

30 October 2017

Dennis Shanahan – Political Editor

The Coalition can’t rely on assumptions it will be seen as the better economic manager

The swearing-in this week of Labour’s Jacinda Ardern and New Zealand First’s Winston Peters as Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister to replace one of the most economically successful New Zealand governments generally has been ascribed to the global politics of the new and  disruptive.

Although Ardern did not win the election, her remarkable success and the continuing success of the nationalistic Peters were built on a campaign against a failure of capitalism in New Zealand, where economic transformation under John Key’s National Party had “not delivered” for all New Zealanders.

Ardern’s priority is addressing the high level of homelessness in a prosperous New Zealand and she has already banned foreigners buying more residential property.

Peters’s campaign was typically protectionist, with one of his first demands being for New Zealand to abandon attempts to keep alive the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, cut to ribbons by Donald Trump’s US withdrawal.

As with Trump’s election, the British votes to leave the EU and hammer Theresa May’s Conservatives, the election of France’s youngest president, Emmanuel Macron, and Malcolm Turnbull’s one-seat escape from defeat, the rise of Ardern was unexpected and viewed as an “outsider” phenomenon. But clear evidence is emerging in Australia that Labour’s victory in New Zealand and Bill Shorten’s success against the Coalition in last year’s election are the result of more fundamental and longstanding electoral changes.

Apart from all the third-way populism of the newcomers there is a structural change stalking the Liberals and Nationals in Australia that requires a rethink of the Coalition’s electoral strategy of simply relying on being “better economic managers”.

The turfing out of Bill English, Key’s partner in rebuilding the New Zealand economy, could be seen as a parallel to the defeat of John Howard in 2007 after Howard and Peter Costello applied traditional Coalition principles and policies of economic management to debt and deficit.

Essentially, voters had become complacent about the economy and decided a new fresh face — Kevin Rudd — deserved a turn.

Yet, according to new electoral analysis at the Australian National University, Rudd’s success in 2007 and Shorten’s near-miss last year are linked to long-term changes of circumstances and attitudes among Australian voters.

The study suggests centre-right parties such as Liberal and Nationals may be facing institutional changes that give centre-left parties such as Labor and the Greens permanent political and strategic advantages in winning elections.

Ironically, these emerging advantages are sourced in decades of Coalition policies encouraging home ownership, share ownership, property investment and selfmanaged superannuation funds. The efforts to make individuals responsible for creating their own wealth and managing their investments has succeeded to such an extent in Australia that it is changing the voting dynamic
(emphasis added).

In short, asset ownership and specific policies relating to those assets are beginning to be more important factors in how key people vote than the overall health of the economy. The Coalition can no longer depend on its historical advantage in being seen as a better economic manager than Labor.

Analysis by the ANU’s Ian McAllister with Indiana University’s Timothy Hellwig on the effect of   asset ownership on voting shows Labor is best placed to take advantage of the rising importance of assets in economic voting.

The traditional political and academic arguments are that parties of the centre-right will favour free-market economic policies that suit homeowners, property investors, shareholders and selffunded superannuants as part of economic policy and those people will vote for the “economic managers”. The other side is that the centre-left will favour intervention to help those without assets and will be supported by those without assets. But after analysis of last year’s Australian election study and elections going back to 2001, the ANU conclusion is that these assumptions are flawed because asset ownership in Australia has ballooned since the 1990s and voters see little difference in the economic aims of the main parties.

Asset ownership, coupled with a tendency for more Australians to make up their minds about how to vote later in a campaign, are combining to give Labor an advantage.

According to McAllister, the assumptions on economic management and previous views on asset ownership “ignores how parties can shift their positions on these issues”. This shift on specific policies affecting asset ownership changes the reaction of “economic” voters and, according to   the ANU study, there is a more pronounced effect as a result of “the centre-left’s decision to oppose free market policies in  particular”.

“Our emphasis on party politics indicates that the electoral payoff of an ‘ownership society’, often cultivated by the centre-right, depends on the policies advanced by their competitors on the centreleft,” the study concludes. “We find that asset owners are more likely to support the centre- right. The magnitude of this effect, however, depends on the relative policy positions advertised   by parties.”

The conclusion is that when party economic policies converge “the strategies of the left-leaning parties carry greater weight” in economic voting. Essentially, Labor has the ability to attract more economic voters when it adopts “centrist policies” and offers specific policies on asset ownership.

In 2007 Rudd as opposition leader cleverly described himself as an “economic conservative” and revelled in the criticism that he was “John Howard-lite”. Being equated with the Howard government on economic management while offering a softer edge on social issues was what Rudd wanted.

Since the 1950s all major parties have encouraged home ownership and property investment, and the vast privatisation schemes of the Hawke-Keating and Howard-Costello governments lifted Australians into global-scale shareholders as superannuation became the second most important investment after the family home. The ANU study says “Australia represents an ideal case study to examine the impact of assets on the vote” and the parties have not stuck to a simple left-right position on the treatment of those assets (emphasis added).

“The role of the political parties is crucial to evaluating the effect of ownership of these assets on vote choice,” the study says.

At the election last year the Coalition and Labor adopted policies on the treatment of superannuation and negative gearing on investment properties that had a big effect on voting.   For the Coalition the changes to high-end superannuation — where voters are susceptible to   high risks to their assets — and the retrospective nature of the changes had an adverse effect on votes (emphasis added). For Labor the decision to limit negative gearing tax advantages for investment properties   to new housing was seen as a great political risk and portrayed by Turnbull as “destroying the housing market in Sydney and Melbourne”. But Labor ensured there was no retrospectivity, so existing investment properties were not affected, and linked the changes to making housing   more affordable by limiting investors in the housing market.

The ANU analysis shows Labor’s position on negative gearing is a positive overall because it does not turn away existing investors and appeals to those who don’t own a home because they think   it will help renters or aid them in getting a home.

“When the Liberal and Labor parties are perceived to be far apart, then asset ownership strongly influences party choice,” the study found. “But when the parties converge in policy space, ownership has little or no effect. We further show that this party system effect is driven not by the position-taking strategies of the Liberals on the right, as most stories of policy reform would have it, but of Labor’s position on the left.”

The Coalition can no longer rely on general economic management to deliver an electoral advantage and needs to understand that individual policies can have a broad effect on the vote. Labor’s ability to align with economic policy and not frighten investors gives it a strategic advantage.

LINO Scuffs – [Coalition] government… has attacked the superannuation system


27 October 2017

James Allan

Prognostications about the mind of the High Court and the fate of Barnaby Joyce having joined the long list of his failures, one might think the party of Malcolm Turnbull would be mulling a new leader. Alas, common sense and the survival instinct, like principle, are alien to the Liberal In Name Only crew

The last few days have brought Team Turnbull yet another bad poll. Tick-tock, tick- tock. In terms of calendar months, rather than number of polls, Prime Minister Turnbull’s government has now been behind Labor for pretty much as long as Prime Minister Abbott had been when Turnbull and the 54 bedwetters defenestrated a first-term Liberal PM – giving as their reason that he had been too long behind in the polls. A truly pathetic rationale, I know, for any political party that thinks about long-term party unity.  Or medium term for that matter.  Heck, that thinks past the end of the calendar year. 

But there you have it. And an eternal truth about human nature, what all the Niki Savva-like critics of us Delcons try to wish away but never will, is that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Turnbull will be without any legitimacy inside his own party once bad poll 30 arrives.  Indeed, as I noted above, Malcolm has already served as much consecutive ‘bad poll’ time as Abbott had when the George Brandis and Christopher Pyne wing of ‘Labor-lite Libs R Us’ decided to appease the ABC, defenestrate Tony and install a man who seems to lack a single conservative view. It is only by the grace of Newscorp, and the much slower and less frequent rate at which they are conducting polls, that Team Turnbull has not already suffered some 30 bad polls in a row.

Other than the usual suspects of Niki Savva, PVO, David Crowe, Paul Kelly and those in paid employment with the Liberal Party, is there anyone who does not recognise Malcolm as a dead man walking? You can’t even pretend Turnbull’s unpopularity has anything to do with forcing through needed tough medicine.  This is a government that has thrown billions of dollars at an idiotic submarine contract in a bid (hopefully unsuccessfully) to retain Christopher Pyne’s seat and that has attacked the superannuation system in a way that means spending a working life’s saving $1 million puts you in the equivalent net position as someone saving $400,000 (once you account for the Age Pension) which cuts to the heart of, well, thrift, hard work and basic Liberal Party beliefs while making all Kelly O’Dwyer’s recent assurances that the government won’t attack superannuation again simultaneously pathetic and unbelievable
(emphasis added).

Oh, and this is a government that can’t get the budget to surplus in any realistic way (as opposed to ‘we’ll grow our way to surplus’ platitudes), even with ever more taxes – sorry, ‘budget savings’ as our Big Government Treasurer Scott Morrison, a la Wayne Swann, likes to call them – and can’t rid us of the impoverishing RET, and does nothing about the patently leftward biased ABC nor the various inroads that have been made into free speech in this country. Indeed, this government is authoring some of those speech-stifling inroad! And that’s just the start of the list of ineptitudes and Labor-lite decisions emanating from this most leftist of Liberal governments. Hey, but they’re a millimetre better than Shorten right?

Yet still there are no murmurs of a spill or a ‘give to Turnbull what he himself dished out’ within the Liberal partyroom. Why?

    1. Is it because too many Coalition MPs have resigned themselves to defeat and figure another year and a bit with all these perks is better than rocking the boat?
    2. Is it because it turns out that the Liberal partyroom is chock full of Labor-lite MPs who hate conservatives at least as much as they hate Labor, possibly more, and don’t really want to protect free speech, cut spending, shrink government, encourage thrift or challenge the perverse consequences of unthinking global warming hysteria
    3. Is it a function of the fact that far too many Liberal candidates are pre-selected from the narrowest of gene pools – political staffers, no successful career in anything else beforehand, think tanks, and of course lawyers – and don’t really hold any principles as sufficiently important to imperil their own positions by speaking out against bad government policy or, heaven forbid, crossing the floor?
    4. Is it sheer cowardice, or stupidity?
    5. Is it all of the above?

Lest you be tempted to put this woeful policy record down solely to our puffed-up and comparatively democratically deficient Senate (and I put myself second to none in thinking our Upper House is a big, big problem), let me disabuse you of that conceit. You see, when it comes to appointments to key positions – the ABC, the Human Rights Commission (‘HRC’), the judiciary, the list goes on – this Team Turnbull government is wholly unconstrained by the Senate. It was this supposedly Liberal government that appointed Ed Santow to the HRC as the so-called ‘Freedom Commissioner’, with no veto or input from the Senate – a man who has said not a word in defence of Bill Leak or the QUT students. Ditto Herr Turnbull’s unconstrained-by-the-Senate choices of Michelle Guthrie and Justin Milne to run the Green-Left TV Collective, aka ‘our’ ABC (when Guthrie bags the mooted media reforms and sees no bias anywhere one can only smile.)

Again, the same goes for picking Alan Finkel and David Gonski to deliver reports. It makes you wonder if Brandis and Turnbull actually know any conservatives, or least any they don’t hold in evident contempt. Because they sure don’t appoint any to anything important. (Note: The Abbott government wasn’t great on this front either, Lord knows why, but it was better than the current mob of ‘Liberals in Name Only’.) And on the same theme, if after what happened to Bill Leak and the three QUT students you can’t even bring yourself to close down the HRC and put “Call-me-and- complain-Tim” out of work, or even try to do so, then you might at least pick a president more obviously supportive of free speech and less in thrall to international, judge-driven, democracy-enervating human rights ideas than Rosalind Croucher!

Run your eye over those names above and tell me which ones Labor couldn’t have appointed.  Good luck.  And that had nothing to do with the Senate.

So if someone claims that this is the worst collection of Liberal Party politicians in Australian history, what would you say in response? Meanwhile the bad polls keep coming.

“The Uncertain Path of Superannuation Reform” by Peter Costello

SuperRatings & Lonsec
Day of Confrontation 2017
Grand Hyatt, Melbourne

12 October 2017

Award superannuation approved by the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission is now 30 years old. Superannuation implemented by the Commonwealth under its tax power – the Superannuation Guarantee Charge – is now 25 years old. We have quite a deal of experience to judge how the system is performing. It is no longer in its infancy. It is maturing, if not a fully mature system.

The origin of Award superannuation was the ALP – ACTU Accord Mark II of September 1985. It was agreed there that a 3% wage rise should be paid, not to employees, but into superannuation on their behalf. The then Government also pledged that:
“before the expiration of the current parliament the Government will legislate to: – establish a national safety net superannuation scheme to which employers will be required to contribute where they have failed to provide cover for their employees under an appropriate scheme”

Taken together the proposal was:-
(a) employer/employee schemes would be certified by the Arbitration Commission where there was agreement;
(b) outside that there would be a national safety net superannuation scheme;
(c) a 3% contribution would be a safety net, not to replace the Age Pension but to supplement it.

Neither the contribution into the Fund nor the earnings of the Fund were to be taxable. That was introduced later, in 1988, when the Government needed revenue, so it decided to bring forward taxation receipts otherwise not payable until there were end benefits. With few lonely exceptions, Governments have been hiking superannuation taxes ever since.

There had been various proposals throughout the 20th Century to set up a funded retirement scheme in Australia The Chifley Government introduced the National Welfare Fund Act of 1945 to impose an additional tax levy which, along with a payroll tax paid by employers, would pay for such benefits. The money was separately accounted for but nonetheless treated the same as consolidated revenue. It was formally abolished in 1985. No individual benefits were ever paid from it. When I became Treasurer in 1996, people were still writing to me asking about their entitlements in the National Welfare Fund! There was nothing to look for.

In 1973 a National Superannuation Committee of Inquiry was established and in 1976 it reported and recommended a partially contributory, universal pension system with an earnings – related supplement. This was rejected by the then Fraser Government.

The first leg of Award superannuation, Consent Schemes were endorsed by the Arbitration Commission to come into operation where there was Employer – Union agreement from 1 July 1987.

The second part – a national safety net scheme was never followed through.

What the Government, in fact, did was to introduce the Super Guarantee System which provides that unless an employer pays a superannuation contribution into an approved Superannuation scheme it is liable to pay an equivalent or greater charge to the Tax Office. No sane employer would give money to the Tax Office when they could use it to benefit employees. As a result money was forced into the superannuation system under the Commonwealth taxation power.

When I became Treasurer (1996), the SG was 5% for small business and 6% for big business. When I left office (2007) it was 9% for both. In 2014 it went to 9.5% where it is today. It will start to increase again in 2021 as the legislated table shows:

1 Year starting on 1 July 2013 9.25
2 Year starting on 1 July 2014 9.5
3 Year starting on 1 July 2015 9.5
4 Year starting on 1 July 2016 9.5
5 Year starting on 1 July 2017 9.5
6 Year starting on 1 July 2018 9.5
7 Year starting on 1 July 2019 9.5
8 Year starting on 1 July 2020 9.5
9 Year starting on 1 July 2021 10
10 Year starting on 1 July 2022 10.5
11 Year starting on 1 July 2023 11
12 Year starting on 1 July 2024 11.5
13 Year starting on or after 1 July 2025 12

The SG  system was superimposed (no pun) on the existing landscape – Industry Funds that had been agreed on and certified by the Arbitration Commission, and private – sector company or public offer plans.

After the idea of a national safety net scheme was dropped, there was little interest in a financial structure that would maximize benefits for those compulsorily enrolled in the scheme under threat of taxation penalties. Yet since this is such a valuable stream of income, mandated by the State, there has always been a very vigorous argument between potential recipients about who should receive it.

I will come back to that in a moment.

Australia’s retirement system therefore consists of three parts:
1. The Commonwealth Age Pension currently fixed at 27.7% of Male Total Average Weekly Earnings – maximum rate of $23,254 p.a. for an individual and $35,058 p.a. for a couple . This is income tested and asset tested. It is totally unfunded. It is paid out of tax revenues received in the year it is paid or (if the Budget is in deficit) paid out of a combination of tax revenue and Government borrowings for that year.

2. The Superannuation System. This is a defined contribution scheme. It guarantees no defined benefit. It is fully funded, but subject to investment risk.

3. Income – whether by way of defined benefit or from defined contributions – over and above the SG system. Voluntary contributions are usually the subject of a tax incentive. As we know both sides of politics have recently combined to reduce the tax incentives to discourage larger amounts in private savings.

Average Retirement Benefits

According to APRA’s Annual Superannuation Bulletin, the average balance in the Age Bracket 60 to 64 (coming up to retirement) in an APRA regulated entity with more than four members as at 30 June 2016 was:
Male- $148,257
Female- $123,690

These figures would include those who have made voluntary contributions, that is, those under both the second and third stream above.

Those who have only received the SG payments (with no voluntary contributions) would have considerably less.

If you were born in 1956 you could have been in the SG system since age 30 – for 30 years. This is not a system still in infancy. We are now starting to get people who have spent nearly their whole working lives in it. On average (male and female) the balance is $137, 144.

That balance is worth less than the value of 6 years of Age Pension. Yet life expectancy for males at age 60 is 26.4 years and for females 29.1 years.

The SG system will not provide anyone with average life expectancy a retirement income for life, not at a comfortable level and not at all.

What the SG system will do, is supplement a person’s Age Pension. And it is particularly harsh in that respect.

The Age Pension is subject to income and assets test. Roughly, for each $100,000 of assets (after the first), a pensioner will lose $2,000 of pension. They will lose 50 cents in pension for each dollar of income or deemed income over the threshold. It is an extraordinary high effective marginal tax rate.

Superannuation can give a person extra up to the threshold in assets and income, but after that every dollar they get back results in 50 cents being clawed out of their pension.

The Commission of Audit, which reported in February 2014, noted that around 80% of Australians of pension age are reliant on the Age Pension. It then looked at what would happen if contributions were lifted to 12%. It found that with a 12% SG over the next 40 years, the same number – roughly 80% would be still be on the pension. The difference is that the SG would reduce many of those now on full pension to a part pension (about 20%).

The SG system does not take people off the pension. It supplements it.  And as it supplements it, it reduces their pension 50% for each dollar (above the threshold). In February, APRA reported there were total superannuation industry assets of $2.1 trillion as at 30 June 2016. “Small funds which include SMSFs, small APRA funds and single member – approved deposit funds accounted for 29.7 per cent of total assets. Retail funds held 26.0 per cent of total assets, industry funds held 22.2 per cent, public sector funds held 17.0 per cent and corporate funds held 2.6 per cent.”

Over the last 10 years the fastest growing sector of the superannuation Industry was the SMSF sector. While total superannuation industry assets increased 132% SMSF assets increased 206%. This is the truly voluntary sector of superannuation. These are the people aiming to, and the people likely to, fund a retirement that will take themselves off the Age Pension entirely and for life.

This works out to be a great saving to the taxpayer.

Of course, this is the sector the Government has targeted with new tax increases, particularly through caps on contributions.

What could be done?

Let us think of how this system of fully funded pension supplement could have been differently structured.

Canada is a country that shares many similarities with us – population 36 million with a similar level of per capita income. Like us it has a three tier retirement income system consisting of :

(a) Old Age Security Pension (lower than ours)income tested and unfunded;

(b) The Canadian Pension Plan (CPP), a defined benefit Plan with compulsory contributions, that is partially funded;

(c) Private savings.

The contributions into CPP are currently 9.9% The employer and the employee pay half (4.95%) each. It is planned to go to 11.9% soon. The CPP makes pension payments to contributors when they reach 65 equal to 25% of the earnings on which contributions were made over 40 years. At present the average is around C$7,839 and the maximum is C$13,370.

Like our SG scheme it is an occupational scheme. Unlike ours (because it is DB) it is not fully funded. In another respect the CPP is very different. It is managed and invested by a Government body, the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB). CPPIB currently has C$300B in investments. It has economies of scale. It is extremely active in Australia. It would be one of the most respected investors in the world.

Let me say that I believe that, subject to safeguards, people should be able to choose who should manage their superannuation. But the reality in Australia is there is a very large cohort of people that don’t.

Their money goes into so-called “default funds” that get allocated to an Industry Fund under an Industrial Award or union agreement, or to a private sector plan by an Employer.

With default funds we are dealing with the money of people who make no active choice about where they want the their money to go or how it should be invested.

Instead of the Government arbitrating between Industry Funds and private funds, there is a fair argument that this compulsory payment should be allocated to a national safety net administrator – let us call it the Super Guarantee Agency – a not for profit agency, which could then either set up its own CPPIB – like Investment Board – the SGIA – or contract it out – the Future Fund Management Agency could do it. There would be huge economies of scale. It would end the fight between the Industry and the profit sector over who gets the benefit of the default funds. Neither sector has been able to attract the money voluntarily. It exists by reason of Government fiat. The Government has decided it should go into the Super system. It could show some interest in managing it in a cost – efficient way.

Default contributions are now spread between many Funds. They allocate them to equity products, fixed income products etc. Sometimes the different superannuation funds use the same managers each paying the fee to do so. Those fees would be reduced if the money were pooled together, if there were one default fund making larger allocations, if market power were used to reduce costs.

It is the other side of the investment equation that particularly interests me. One side is how it comes in, the other side is how it is invested out. You all know that the biggest variable in the benefit that a retiree will receive from Super is the investment return. A bigger pool with economies of scale and access to the best Managers would likely drive down costs and drive up returns. It would be in the interest of all, except of course the mangers, and those interested in using administration fees for other purposes.

CPPIB is an example of how a long term Sovereign Fund investing defined contributions can get global reach, and valuable diversification in asset class and geography.

It also adds to the National skill base that Canada has: – a Sovereign Institution of sophisticated investors operating in global markets. The feedback and expertise developed is very valuable to national decision-makers.

The Concentration in Australian Equity Markets

Now I know that Super Ratings is releasing or has just released its ratings on performance of various funds.

The year ended 30 June 2017 was a good year for superannuation returns. I congratulate those of you who have done well.

For Balanced Funds (growth assets ratio between 60% and 76%), the top quartile return was 11.15% and the bottom quartile was 8.28%. It would be wrong to conclude this means there is a 3% return for skill. Inside this category – Balanced Funds – there is a large variation for growth assets – 15%. We would expect allocation further up the risk curve to do better – and in fact that was the case.

What made returns good this last year was the bounce on global equity markets. You know and I know that the most important factor in return is the overall market movement – Beta.

And what worries me is that the Australian Market is overwhelmingly influenced by Bank Stocks. Bank Stocks make up 25% of the ASX 200. They are either the four largest companies on the Australian Stock Exchange or 4 out of the top 5 – depending on the price of BHP.

There would not be another Western Country where the Stock Exchange is so dominated by financials and in particular by the main banks – the quadropoly as I have previously described them.

We therefore have a situation where superannuation returns are unduly influenced by the returns of the big four Australian Banks. I do not think it is healthy to have retirement incomes so significantly concentrated in this way.

I have no doubt it is an enormous advantage for the Banks. It means that every Australian in a super scheme that holds growth assets (and every working Australian is in a super scheme by virtue of Government legislation, and every person short of nearing retirement will be in growth assets), is invested in Banks.

Banks never have to fear a flight of Australian investors.

By reason of their size and by reason of compulsory pool of savings, Australian superannuation funds with their compulsory rivers of gold have to hold them.

The four big banks are privileged. They are immune from takeover. They cannot merge. They have an ever ready supply of superannuation money flowing in to their stocks. You can see why an air of impregnability and complacency has seeped into the management in Australian banks. Market discipline is negligible. And the returns on equity are hardly matched anywhere else in the world.

Again judging from the experience of CPPIB, the ability to accumulate and diversify with economies of scale might be good for superannuation members and it might also be good for the banking system – not so much in price – but in introducing a little more competition and market discipline.

The big mistake in developing our pension supplement (the occupational contributory superannuation system), is that all the focus was on getting money into it, with not enough thought about the optimal way of managing it. I do not say it has caused it, but it has contributed to concentration of financials in the Australian Stock Market.

The interaction of the tax and welfare system (particularly very high withdrawal rates) means compared to reliance on the Age Pension alone, the system does not bring anything like the benefits touted. To really calculate the benefit of SG, you need to deduct foregone age pension it will trigger.

The system has created an industry. It has certainly delivered benefits for those working in it. But it does not exist for them. It exists for those who are forfeiting wages month in month out in the expectation that in 10, 20, 30 or 40 years they will get to enjoy the fruits of their labour.

Peter Costello

Former Treasurer of Australia – (1996 – 2007)

In superannuation reform, O’Dwyer must heed Costello

The Australian

17 October 2017

Judith Sloan – Contributing Economics Editor


You’ll have heard that our system of compulsory superannuation is the envy of the world. But dig a little deeper and you’ll discover that the people making this claim are the beneficiaries of the system, rather than the superannuants.

The superannuation funds, the trustees, the fund managers and the workers more generally who are employed in the industry think compulsory superannuation is the bee’s knees. But the reality is that superannuation is a dud product for pretty much every present and past superannuation member and, deep down, the government knows this.

In effect, compulsory superannuation is a tax-gathering mechanism that knocks off many people’s entitlement to the Age Pension, full or part, while forcing them to forgo valuable current consumption — think buying a house, paying school fees, taking a holiday.

It is a form of compulsory saving that is taxed on the way in, taxed while it is earning, and taxed, implicitly or explicitly, on the way out.

We should be clear on one thing: governments should use compulsion as sparingly as possible. Think compulsory vaccination, compulsory schooling, compulsory military service, compulsory helmet-wearing for cyclists. Sometimes these interventions are debatable, and rightly so.

The arguments that were used to justify the introduction of compulsory superannuation were twofold: Australia needed to raise its rate of savings, as well as overcome people’s short-sightedness in order to provide for a comfortable, dignified retirement. The alternative was to compel people to save to achieve this outcome.

The first rationale was quickly discredited and is no longer used as an economic argument. The second line of reasoning has a series of weaknesses, most of which were discussed last week by former treasurer Peter Costello.

Costello, now the chairman of the Future Fund, made the point that the system of compulsory superannuation is reaching maturity but is failing to meet its intended objectives. The present final balances of superannuants are relatively meagre, on average $148,000 for men aged 60 to 64 and $124,000 for women.

He notes that the average balance for men and women is worth “less than the value of six years of the Age Pension”. Nice, but no cigar.

Moreover, 80 per cent of those 65 or older rely on the pension, in full or in part.

And even in the context of a lift in the rate of the superannuation guarantee charge — from the existing 9.5 per cent to 12 per cent, heaven forbid — the rate of reliance on the pension doesn’t change overall, although more retirees will be on part pensions.

But here’s the real kicker. Because of the way the income and earnings tests for the pension work, there is an effective 50 per cent tax rate on higher superannuation balances after a certain point. In other words, for every extra dollar you have in your superannuation account, you lose 50c of income from the pension. This is a shocking deal.

What super amounts to is a compulsion on citizens to knock off their entitlement to the pension while having their contributions and fund earnings taxed in the meantime.

It really is highway robbery — and I haven’t even mentioned the excessive fees and charges by the funds that are part and parcel of the way the system operates.

It gets worse. For citizens whose incomes are high enough potentially for them to become self-funded retirees, this government has decided to increase their tax burden and limit concessional contributions to the point that many will simply give up the quest and shoot for the pension, at least in part. This is seriously dumb.

The package of superannuation taxation measures implemented by Revenue and Financial Services Minister Kelly O’Dwyer is so complex and counter-productive that the likely medium-term outcome is less net revenue (and I’m not even talking here about doing your political base in the eye — which is, of course, seriously stupid).

And don’t you just love this: one law insists that employers must pay 9.5 per cent of a worker’s pay into superannuation and another law insists that the worker must remove any amount above $25,000 a year if the worker’s superannuation balance is high enough.

But the government seems incapable of doing anything about this inconsistency.

Indeed, apart from raising taxes and vastly increasing the regulatory burden on superan­nuation, particularly self-managed superannuation schemes, O’Dwyer has been incapable of effecting any real reform of a system replete with perverse features.

For instance, her effort to achieve a better balance of trustees of superannuation funds, with one-third of directors (including the chair) being independent, has come to nothing. She has been faffing about in relation to what should happen to the default arrangements — these give an egregious leg-up to the union industry super funds. There is a long list of other required changes, including enforcement of the sole purpose test for super funds, but it remains just that — a list.

This is where the importance of Costello’s speech comes in. He is proposing that the Future Fund, or a body similar to it, be used as the destination for default funds, which are the superannuation contributions made on behalf of workers who don’t make an explicit choice.

It is estimated that upwards of 75 per cent of workers who could make a choice don’t. Note, however, that in most enterprise agreements (which cover close to 40 per cent of workers), a single superannuation scheme is generally nominated and it is the one associated with the trade union linked to the workplace. (Kelly, you must outlaw this — put it at the top of your list.)

Let’s be clear, Costello is not proposing the nationalisation of superannuation. Rather, he is saying it would make sense for the default funds to flow to a national investment body — think Canada, Singapore — where the economies of scale and scope can ensure lower fees and charges as well as a global reach of investment. One of the biggest flaws of the investment side of our system is the overweight position of local equities, particularly the big banks.

Sadly, it seems unlikely that our system of compulsory superannuation will be dismantled anytime soon, even though it cheats so many people. In all likelihood it has induced higher levels of household debt as people anticipate being able to use their final superannuation balances to pay down outstanding debts, including mortgages.

The key now is to ensure that the super charge remains where it is (at 9.5 per cent); that we have a better way of directing default funds; and that the raft of other reform measures is acted on — sooner rather than later.

Retirement in Australia is unrealisable for most workers

Australian Financial Review

12 October 2017

Satyajit Das

Australians make up barely 0.3 per cent of the globe’s population and yet hold $2.1 trillion in pension savings – the world’s fourth-largest such pool.

Those assets are viewed as a measure of the country’s wealth and economic resilience, and seem to guarantee a high standard of living for Australians well into the future. Other developed nations, aging even faster than Australia and subject to fraying safety nets, have held up the system as a world-class model to fund retirement. In fact, its future looks nowhere near so bright.

Australia’s so-called superannuation scheme is a defined contribution pension plan funded by mandatory employer contributions (currently 9.5 per cent, scheduled to rise gradually to 12 per cent by 2025)

Employees can supplement those savings and are encouraged to do so with tax breaks, pension fund earnings and generous benefits.

The gaudy size of the investment pool, however, masks serious vulnerabilities. First, the focus on assets ignores liabilities, especially Australia’s $1.8 trillion in household debt as well as total non-financial debt of around $3.5 trillion.

It also overlooks Australia’s foreign debt, which has reached over 50 per cent of GDP – the result of the substantial capital imports needed to finance current account deficits that have persisted despite the recent commodity boom, strong terms of trade and record exports.

Second, the savings must stretch further than ever before, covering not just the income needs of retirees but their rapidly increasing healthcare costs.

In the current low-income environment, investment earnings have shrunk to the point where they alone can’t cover expenses. That’s reducing the capital amount left to pass on as a legacy.

Third, the financial assets held in the system (equities, real estate, etc.) have to be converted into cash at current values when they’re redeemed, not at today’s inflated values.

Those values are quite likely to decline, especially as a large cohort of Australians retires around the same time, driving up supply.

Meanwhile, weak public finances mean that government funding for healthcare is likely to drop, forcing retirees to liquidate their investments faster and further suppressing values.

Fourth, the substantial size of these savings and the large annual inflow (more than $100 billion per year) into asset managers has artificially inflated values of domestic financial assets, given the modest size of the Australian capital markets.

As retirees increasingly draw down their savings, withdrawals may be greater than new inflows, reducing demand for these financial assets.

This will be exacerbated by labour market changes, including lower job security and slower wage growth, which will reduce employee contributions into the scheme. Values, which depend on a growing pool of pension savings, will inevitably suffer.

Fifth, the system has accelerated the financialisation of the Australian economy. The large inflows and around 600,000 self-managed superannuation funds feed an industry of financial planners, asset managers, asset consultants, accountants, lawyers and custodians, as well as banks and stockbrokers. The more than $20 billion annually paid in fees and costs is of questionable economic value.

Finally, the system may well fail in its primary objective – that is, to minimise the need for the government to finance retirement. The typical accumulated balance at retirement age is around $200,000 for men and around $110,000 for women.

The averages are artificially increased by a small pool of people with large balances, yet they’re still well below the $600,000 to $700,000 estimated to be necessary for homeowning and debt-free couples to finance their retirements, which may last 20 or more years.

The Australian government will need to cover the shortfall for a large proportion of the population. In fact, it will lose doubly, having already suffered a loss of revenue from the generous tax breaks provided for the schemes (estimated at $30 billion annually and increasing), which have been used, especially by wealthy individuals, as a way to reduce their tax burden.

Future generations will also be affected adversely, having to finance payments to older generations through higher taxes or additional government debt, reduced wealth transfers from parents, and lower benefits than those awarded to their predecessors.

The Australian system illustrates the fallacy of all retirement schemes, whether underwritten by governments, employers or by individuals themselves.

Such arrangements can only work in an environment of high incomes, strong investment returns and limited post-retirement life expectancy.

Alternatively, they are sustainable where a rapidly rising population and workforce finance payments to a smaller group of post-retirement workers.

The real lesson of Australia’s experience may be that the idea of retirement is unrealisable for most workers, who will almost certainly have to work

Governments have implicitly recognised this fact by abandoning mandatory retirement requirements, increasing the minimum retirement age, tightening eligibility criteria for benefits and reducing tax concessions for this form of saving.

If the world’s best pension system can’t succeed, we’re going to have to rethink retirement itself.

Satyajit Das is a former banker turned consultant and author.

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