Category: Save Our Super Articles

Superannuation drawn into political crossfire in coronavirus crisis

The Australian

19 April 2020

John Durie

Scott Morrison may well get his wish if private equity, backed by industry superannuation fund money, does bid for Virgin Australia, but not the way the Prime Minister intended, which has once again politicised super.

For the super sector, that is the problem of being the creation of politicians that has meant being subject to their often hypocritical whims to suit the purpose of the day. A few weeks ago the government thought it was clever opening the way for people to withdraw money early from their superannuation.

Josh Frydenberg noted “it’s your money” so you can get ­access to it if you are caught in a ­financial mess because of the government-imposed shutdown.

When the industry funds said they could face losses of up to $50bn in cash withdrawals, the Minister for Superannuation, Jane Hume, saw it as another leg in the push to consolidate superannuation funds.

Hume argued that some funds like Hostplus and REST were too reliant on the hospitality and retail sectors and, like others, had a concentrated pool from which to raise funds because industry fund contributions were often tied to industry industrial relations awards.

Diversification, she said, should be the rule in membership and investment strategy.

Then Morrison came up with the bright idea that specialist industry superannuation funds had plenty of cash so someone like the TWU, with a heavy dose of Virgin Australia workers, should be diverting funds into the airline.

The three pronouncements from the relevant ministers underlines the political bias against industry funds, breathtaking hypocrisy and, more importantly, a dangerous ignorance about how funds manage their money.

By law, managers must invest for the long term to boost member returns and this fiduciary duty would by definition prevent a fund making a national interest investment because that would suit the prime minister of the day.

When the government opened the door to early withdrawal of funds last month it not only risked members losing up to $84,0000 in lifetime savings but risked the funds losing the ability to invest to support corporate Australia.

Somehow all of this was forgotten by Morrison.

That said, it would not surprise if an industry fund like AustralianSuper provided capital to support a private equity bid for Virgin.

AustralianSuper has a stated policy of owning bigger stakes in fewer companies, which is why it backed BGH’s successful bid for Navitas and unsuccessful bid for Healthscope.

AustralianSuper investment chief Mark Delaney is keen to use the fund’s equity investments to support Australian companies with long-term capital.

This would be most company boards’ dream come true.

It would help if Canberra maintained a more consistent approach to superannuation even amid these extraordinary times.

Why SMSFs need government help too

Australian Financial Review

13 April 2020

Elio D’Amato

There has been an unprecedented spending initiative by the government to prop up the economy and its citizens through a virtual shutdown for the next six to 12 months. But although self-managed superannuation funds (SMSFs) will probably be hit hard through this crisis, we’re not hearing much about help for them.

An SMSF retiree’s asset balance is vital because it is from this that future income is generated to help fund living costs and expenses. Periods such as this can cause great anxiety while doing irreparable damage to future income streams as asset values plummet, particularly if there is a prolonged period of volatility.

Compounding the stress is that many retirees were lured to the sharemarket because there was nowhere else to generate a reliable income stream. But in the recent wave of dividend deferrals and cancellations, dividend-income expectations are being cut significantly.

The Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) delivered a regulatory mandate to cut dividends as it cautioned banks and insurance companies on paying out too much in dividends. This relief lever was seized quickly by the Bank of Queensland at the time of its half-year result.

Unlike share prices that are subject to sentiment, dividends paid by a company tend to reflect the economic reality a business faces. With declines in profitability and free cash flow expected for the coming six to 12 months, the income reality from the sharemarket for retirees on a risk-adjusted basis is bleak.

The outlook for other asset classes in which SMSFs traditionally invest doesn’t look much better. The property market is at risk of seeing its income dry up, leaving many retirees in the lurch. With the rising call for government-mandated rent deferrals, the SMSF property investor who previously received 4 per cent rental returns is likely to be affected significantly.

Further, investors in property trusts, exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and listed and unlisted funds could face a freeze on their distributions should conditions and asset values deteriorate further.

And let’s not forget those who sought the safety of cash and term deposits in the recent turmoil – $1 million held in cash-like products returns an absolute maximum $15,000 a year, well below the regular JobSeeker payment. With interest rates to remain lower for much longer, there is little in the way of hope.

Huge fall in earnings

Should economic and investment conditions worsen, an SMSF retiree could potentially see earnings fall by well over 60 per cent. For SMSFs on the margin, this could fall well below the age pension and JobSeeker payment level.

According to the SMSF Association, there are 560,000 SMSFs comprised of 1.1 million members. The Australian Taxation Office (ATO), in its last published SMSF quarterly statistical report for the three months ended September 30, showed that 37.1 per cent of all SMSF members were of retirement age, which equates to more than 400,000 individuals.

The federal government’s decision to reduce the minimum SMSF pension withdrawal requirement by 50 per cent is important – particularly as this amount is calculated based on the asset value at the start of the financial year.

But another part of the government’s support package was to drop the deeming rate used in the income test to determine qualification for financial support such as the age pension. Without going into the technicalities, the decrease in deeming rate means a reduction in accessible income that would result in those who receive a part pension being able to receive more and, in theory, potentially help some SMSF members on the margin to be eligible for at least a part pension.

The statistics, however, show that for SMSFs, this will probably not be the case. In the ATO report, while there is no breakdown as to whether the SMSFs are in accumulation or pension phase, the median average balance of all SMSFs per member was $408,237. The reality is that older SMSF members tend to have larger balances and therefore would most likely be disqualified from receiving the age pension as they fail the assets test.

Before this correction, an SMSF retiree couple with $1.2 million between them, who owned their own home and earned an income of 5 per cent on a balanced portfolio of assets, would derive in total $60,000 income for the year ($2307 a fortnight). A 60 per cent drop in future income results in $923 a fortnight, which is more than $370, or 30 per cent, less than the age pension.

Of course, where asset values do fall below the upper asset threshold ($869,500 in the case of a married couple who own their own home), they will qualify for a part pension under the current rules. But it is important to note that asset values in property and unlisted trusts often lag, with revaluations conducted sparingly.

Although the income hit of suspended distributions will probably be felt early, any asset revalue relief from non-shares assets may be some time in coming – supporting the idea of immediate income support in the near term.

SMSF retirees who fail the assets test will have no option but to dip into their savings, rendering the government drop in the minimum pension withdrawal level totally useless. This drawdown will result in a lower asset base for future income generation, making it more difficult for them to be self-sustaining and increasing the future burden on government.

Short-term assistance

For the same duration that JobSeeker, JobKeeper and other spending initiatives are implemented, a possible aid package to SMSF retirees might include the assets test being waived and a regular ongoing payment equal to a minimum of 50 per cent of the current full age pension.

Although this in a few cases may still fall short of past income levels, it would provide urgent short-term income relief. It would reduce the need for excess drawdowns on assets when prices are challenged and/or liquidity dries up.

Further, for those who under normal circumstances pass the assets test, but receive a part pension due to other income generation, for the same period they could automatically be eligible for the full pension to compensate for loss of income.

The main intention would be to deliver some basic support to the large number of forgotten SMSF members whose income even when investments were stable was inadequate.

David Murray says super is busted

Australian Financial Review

2 April 2020

Tony Boyd

Five years after he handed the federal government the final report of the Financial System Inquiry David Murray is convinced the country’s superannuation system is broken.

Murray, who was chief executive of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia for 13 years and is now chairman of wealth manager AMP, says it is actually misleading to call it a retirement income system.

“Ours is not a superannuation system, it’s a tax advantaged savings system,” he says.

Murray says the fact that thousands of Australians have, in recent weeks, rushed to switch out of balanced funds into cash after the stockmarket had fallen by about 38 per cent was an indication the system was not fit for purpose.

He says Australia should mandate the payment of a pension to super fund members upon retirement. This would make the job of super fund trustees easier because they could match long term assets with long term liabilities.

Murray says the final report of the FSI delivered to the federal government in November 2014 recognised the impossibility of politicians agreeing to Australia introducing mandated pension payments upon retirement.

As a simpler and more politically acceptable option, the FSI recommended the introduction of Comprehensive Income Products for Retirement (CIPRs).

Annuity-style pension products

“We made recommendations about an annuity style product called CIPRs, which would try and encourage people through self-selection to focus more on annuity style pension products in retirement,” he says.

“The issues that we discussed around the CIPRs started with the discussion about what does a really good system look like. And apart from having a retirement income objective for the system, a really good system would only pay pensions in the form of annuities. That is a pension should provide a pension.

“That would create a much more predictable environment for trustees to manage risk and asset allocation.

“The reason we didn’t recommend that pensions be mandated was that we’re in a country that if it had been promoted it would have been easily politically defeated. So, we fell back on the simpler recommendation.”

Of course, the federal government has dragged the chain on implementing a comprehensive tax efficient framework for CIPRs. It is not the only area where the FSI recommendations have been half heartedly implemented or ignored.

Murray is disappointed that legislation defining the single objective of super as being for retirement income has not passed through parliament. He thinks independent trustee directors should be on industry fund super boards. But the government has given up on this fight after repeatedly failing to get such measures through the Senate.

The single most important recommendation of the FSI was in relation to the need for the big four banks to be “unquestionably strong”. This was implemented by the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority.

As a result of this measure the big four reduced their leverage and implemented common equity tier 1 capital which Commonwealth Bank of Australia CEO Matt Comyn this week said was the strongest in the world.

Murray says “unquestionably strong” has “worked nicely” but he is concerned that the super system, which should be a force for stability in times of crisis, is in need of emergency liquidity from the Reserve Bank of Australia.

Funds don’t need RBA support

The switching out of growth assets into cash over the past two weeks combined with the federal government’s decision to allow emergency access to $20,000 in super savings has prompted several leading industry super funds to request RBA support.

Superannuation minister Jane Hume has rejected the idea and suggested any fund unable to pay its members must have poor governance of its investment strategy.

Murray, too, is damning in his commentary of any fund that is need of liquidity. He says the root of the problem is funds advertising on the basis of having a higher rate of return

“The discussion about switching does show the flaw in this system where you can keep changing your allocations and it shows some of the systemic risks that arise,” he says.

“I think the more serious issue is that where superannuation is advertised and sold on the basis only of rate of return, then trustees will make assumptions and seek out the highest rate of return in their asset allocations with some risk to stability as they go forward.

“By assuming that default funds will flow in no matter what, that the inflows will keep rising and that therefore funds can take more risks with the illiquid assets means these funds are establishing a higher risk system for their members. And this is what has shown up recently to the point where the funds want liquidity support.

“Now, whether that is simply because the government has allowed some early withdrawals or not, only each fund knows, but on the amounts that the government has mentioned, it seems to me to be not quite credible that a well-managed fund should need support for those amounts of withdrawals.

“If we have funds that have taken aggressive asset allocation positions, have sold those on the basis of rate of return for their default fund and attracted money from other funds as a result, then the funds that have taken a more cautious approach are penalised and their own members could well be penalised.

Take cue from Singapore

“Now, we can’t solve that now because the role of the government and the Reserve Bank is to manage the crisis we’ve got. But it does demonstrate that this system we have is not right. And I think we have to face into some more sensible arrangements for the future than we have today.”

Murray warns against the RBA stepping in to provide liquidity to super funds because of the moral hazard. But he says if emergency support is required then we could copy Singapore’s Temasek-style sovereign wealth fund.

He says this fund could acquire assets from a fund needing liquidity but in doing so the fund would have to accept a price in alignment with the prices prevailing in the sharemarket.

The government owned entity could purchase assets from the super fund in return for liquidity and this would allow the fund to restore its asset allocation back to the level which prevailed before the COVID-19 sell-off.

Murray says this would be fair to all members of a fund because the illiquid assets would have to be sold at a discount to face value. The alternative is inequity for members in the fund not switching to cash because they would be stuck with overvalued assets.

Murray says that by matching the price of assets to the general movement in equities in the market plus a further discount for illiquidity would mean the government entity buying the assets would pay fair value.

The assets could be sold later and the taxpayer would make a profit. The concept of a Temasek style sovereign wealth fund would suit the times given the need for the government to bail out Virgin Australia.

Temasek, which owns 55 per cent of Singapore Airlines (which in turn owns 23 per cent of Virgin), last week underwrote a $S5.3 billion ($6.1 billion) equity raising by Singapore Airlines. The airline also raised $S9.7 billion through the issue of 10-year bonds.

Murray says he is inclined to think the banking system is fine given it has no systemic prudential issues.

“On the other hand, there are some fundamental issues in superannuation that we can get through with some support if it can be designed the right way and we don’t create this moral hazard for the future,” he says.

“But then we have to open up the way this damn thing works and fix it.”

Industry funds’ pathetic plea shows the jig is up

The Australian

31 March 2020

Janet Albrechtsen

Many people are recycling ­Warren Buffett’s famous quote that it’s only when the tide goes out that we discover who has been swimming naked. And for good reason: one Australian industry is looking pretty ugly right now, its mismanagement and hubris expose­d by this current crisis. The naked swimmers are the trustees of the biggest industry superannuation funds and their directors.

This sector rode so high and mighty in the good times that it demanded that the corporate sector­, especially the banks, take money from their owners and give it to causes deemed worthy by these industry super funds.

In the midst of this crisis, while the banks are honourably bailing out their customers, these sanctimonious industry super funds demand­ that ordinary Aust­ralians rescue them and their members from the consequences of the sector’s arrogance.

The biggest question is how this group has been protected from scrutiny and sensible regul­ation for so long, and what can be done to end its immunity from the kind of critical examination the rest of the financial sector has alwa­ys faced.

Consider the causes of the arroganc­e and power of large industry­ super funds. They have been coddled by an industrial relation­s club that mandates that it be showered with never-ending torrents of new money. Of the 530 super funds listed in modern­ industrial awards, 96.6 per cent are industry super funds. That’s some gravy train.

With that guaranteed inflow of cash, it’s hardly surprising that industr­y super funds have grown fat and lazy about risk. They made two critical assumptions. First, that these vast inflows would alway­s exceed the outflows they had to pay pensioners and superannuants. And second, they could keep less of their assets in cash or liquid assets to meet redemp­tions.

In fact, they doubled down on this bet by plunging members’ money into illiquid assets — they filled their portfolios with infrastructure, real estate, private equity­ and other forms of long-term assets that can’t be easily and quickly sold to meet redemptions.

These assets can’t be easily valued­ either — experts will tell you that the valuation of illiquid assets is essentially guesswork. If you don’t have a deep and liquid market into which to sell an asset, you really have no idea what that asset would fetch if and when the time came to sell.

The fact the valuation of illiquid assets is open to huge ­variation was a terrific advantage in so many ways for industry ­insiders during the good times.

Industry super funds could use boomtime assumptions to prod­uce inflated valuations to prop up their performance relative to retai­l funds that don’t have the same guaranteed gravy train of inflows to invest in unlisted long-term asset classes.

That gives the industry funds one heck of a competitive edge and those inflated performance figures make for handsome ­bonuse­s for employees of industry funds and asset managers such as IFM.

This apparent outperformance by industry super funds seems to have anaesthetised the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority and many others. They have been able to resist sensible regulation by pointing to their “healthy” performance, and they have received exemptions from the kind of stock-standard rules that govern other trustees of public money.

The upshot is that many industry super funds have ridiculously large boards stuffed full of union or industry association nominees who obligingly pass their directors’ fees back to their nominating union (where, lo and behold, it might find its way to the ALP) or industry association.

But now the music has stopped. What these big industry funds have sold to members as “balanced” funds doesn’t look so balanced any more.

The current crisis has exposed illiquidity issues. Many of their members have lost their jobs or lost hours of work, drying up the guaranteed flow of new super­annuation contributions.

And the Morrison government has announced an emergency and temporary exemption allowing members in financial trouble to withdraw up to $10,000 a year from superannuation for each of the next two years.

The liquidity problem facing industry super funds has been compounded by the fact many members have been switching from what the industry funds call “balanced” options into cash options, requiring funds to liquid­ate long-term assets in the “balanced­” options.

This new environment has forced industry funds to slash questionable valuations of illiquid assets in their “balanced” funds to avoid redeeming member­s or members who switch out of balanced funds into cash options getting a windfall at the expense of members who remain in the “balanced” funds.

So the jig is up. When comparisons between industry super funds and retail funds are adjusted for risk — as they should be — industry super funds don’t look so healthy after all.

Now that the tide has gone out, we can see two issues with greater clarity. First, trustees of industry super funds haven’t done a stellar job of managing risk through the full economic cycle, through good times and bad.

There was too much compla­c­ency from more than two decades of uninterrupted economic growth. And maybe some naivety too: Australian industry funds are relatively new, emerging only in the 1980s after the introduction of compulsory superannuation payments.

Second, APRA stands condemned for letting industry super funds get away with second-rate governance and poor management of risk through the full econo­mic cycle.

Consider the hypocrisy of these super funds now wanting a bailout to deal with a liquidity problem of their own making during­ the boom times. For years, noisy industry funds have sanctimoniously demanded that company boards give up some profit to benefit society.

Now their mismanagement has exposed risks that their members­ may not have been told about. And the same industry funds want the Reserve Bank of Australia (aka the taxpayer) to bail out their members to protect their boards from claims of mismanagement. The industry funds no doubt will point to the help the government is giving the banks as a preceden­t for a bailout.

However, they should remember that the quid pro quo for banks getting government help is the banks meeting a stringent set of capital and liquidity rules, not to mention governance requirements such as a majority of independent directors. Do these funds want a similar regime instead of the namby-pamby one that applies­ now?

To date, and to its credit, the Morrison government has resisted their calls. Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg should stand even stronger, demanding APRA lift its game. How did the industry fund sector escape scrutiny of its dirty little secrets for so long?

Part of the reason is sheer thuggery. Industry Super ­Aust­ralia, the representative body for industry super funds, tried to silenc­e Andrew Bragg a few years ago when he was at the Business Council of Australia for exposing the unholy links between unions and industry fund. Bragg, now a senator, is leading the push to reform­ industry super.

The voting power, and buying power, of huge industry funds is another part of the answer. Their special pleading and scare tactics to ensure they can keep feasting on members’ funds by having the super guarantee charge contribution increased from 9.5 per cent to 12 per cent is the rest of the answer.

The pathetic plea for a taxpayer­-funded bailout from mismanaged industry super funds is compelling evidence that ­workers should be allowed to keep more, not less, of their hard-earned money rather than be forced to shovel more into industry funds and their mates.

Coronavirus: Perks and loopholes can’t endure as we run up debt

The Australian

30 March 2020

Adam Creighton

The young and poor have little say in society but they are incurring the bulk of the costs from the shutdown.

Whether it’s their incomes, their schooling or their ability to enjoy life, the sacrifices that students and so-called generations X and Y are making for the over-75s are very significant. Unlike the Spanish flu 90 years ago, it seems coronavirus is of little threat to the vast majority.

The $320bn the government and Reserve Bank have allocated so far to staunch the self-imposed economic carnage will have to be paid for. The plunge in tax revenues could well be as significant as the increase in outlays, leaving a gap that will test governments’ ability to borrow. There’s already $400 trillion of debt sloshing around the world.

And the bill will come long after those whom the younger generations have tried to protect have died. It’s reasonable to give some thought now to how the costs will be shared.

Policies that were thought fair and reasonable only months ago will start to look unfair, even absurd. The government will face stark choices about how to allocate the burden. Will it crush the productive sector of the economy with even more income tax?

Everyone will suffer in degrees during this crisis, but it’s only fair that those who are being saved, ­especially if they are financially equipped, pay a disproportionate burden of the cost.

(It’s true retirees have seen huge falls in their superannuation balances, but once a vaccine is found in a year or two, their accounts are likely to roar back to life.)

The Commonwealth Seniors Health Card, which is a benefit for retirees who are too well-off to quality for the Age Pension, should be immediately dumped.

How can we have people ­queuing up for soup in Sydney’s Martin Place (as was the case on Sunday night), while taxpayers fork out hundreds of millions of dollars a year to ensure cheap medicines and transport for those who can easily afford them anyway?

Scrapping the seniors and pensions tax offset, which provides a tax-free threshold of about $33,000 for over-65s and about $58,000 for couples, is also a no-brainer. Naturally, these two changes will cause some discomfort for those affected, but nothing compared with the chaos ­recently foisted on millions.

It’s obvious the superannuation guarantee should be suspended for the rest of the year, as I’ve argued repeatedly. The government is forgoing almost $20bn a year in tax by keeping it when it needs the revenue urgently.

Coronavirus: Economic bailouts

CountryBailout amountAdditions
USA$A3.2 trillion+ $A810bn for layoffs
Germany$A1.3 trillion+ $A89bn for layoffs
UK$A627bn+ 80% of salaries up to $2390/month for layoffs
Japan$A437bn+ cash payments and travel subsidies for layoffs
Australia$320bn+ workers and sole traders can access $10,000 tax free from superannuation, + $1500 per fortnight for workers
Canada$A121bn+ $2000/month for 4 months for layoffs
South Korea$A66bn
Norway$A15.2bn+ 100% of salary for 20 days / 80% if self-employed for layoffs
New Zealand$A11.5bn+ wages covered for people who need to self-isolate

As of March 31, 2020

Rather than taxing younger generations or workers to oblivion, it’s best to ­curtail generous arrangements, at least temporarily. These tax increase would have relatively little or no impact on disposable incomes; indeed, in the case of suspending the super guarantee, take-home pay would increase for millions of workers.

Other options might include a significant inheritance tax imposed, say, for the next 20 years to help defray the gargantuan tax burden that has just been put on everyone who is not going to die in that period.

Tax-free earnings on superannuation in the retirement phase should cease, at least temporarily. Currently, the earnings of superannuation funds for retirees face zero taxation.

Everyone else pays 15 per cent tax. It should be the same for everyone (as the Henry tax review recommended, by the way). Fifteen per cent is still a lot more generous than marginal income tax rates.

Cancelling the refundability of franking credits — for everyone, not just self-funded retirees — is another option.

To be sure, this would cause real pain, given some retirees quite reasonably have structured their affairs around them. But this is a crisis.

There are some economic bright sides for younger people. If a house price crash eventuates, those with jobs and to obtain credit will be more easily able to afford a home.

Whether house prices fall for long remains to be seen, though. In times of uncertainty, gold and property tend to be relatively attractive assets and immune from inflation.

And significant inflation may well be on the horizon. The borrowing lobby in society is much more politically powerful than the lending lobby. That is, the constituency that benefits from inflation (anyone with debt) is greater than those who wouldn’t.

What’s more, a niche group of economists reckons the central bank can give us all money directly — say, $10,000 each straight into our bank accounts — without undermining the economic system.

It’s known as Modern Monetary Theory and, understandably, it is becoming popular.

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch” was branded into me through years of economics study. It’s hard to imagine that we can just make new money out of thin air without serious long-term costs to the economic system, or certainly respect for it.

Why would anyone bother working or saving?

The fiscal situation is looking so dire a future government might well give MMT a try. It’s so ­seductive. They should be wary, though. A great inflation has unpredictable consequences, which history suggests can be terrible.

Nevertheless, if inflation does break out, the burden of the economic shutdown would play out very differently. It would remove the government and private debt burden, obviating the need for the various tax increases suggested above. Anyone with significant cash or deposit holdings would be wiped out.

For now, however, this is all academic.

As in an ordinary war, the young are doing the heavy lifting and face a massive tax burden. It could be a bit less burdensome if reasonable, temporary tax increases were imposed for the over-65s to help defray the costs.

It’s important to keep perspective. Roughly 165,000 people die in Australia each year; about 3000 from influenza.

Meanwhile, the economy is being destroyed — real and permanent damage — for uncertain benefit.

If we totally shut down the economy, as many are advocating, when does it reopen? And if it reopens and the virus emerges again, is it shut down once more?

It’s patently not possible to keep turning an economy on and off every few months without ­destroying civilisation.

Consequences of increasing the superannuation guarantee rate

12 March 2020

Jim Bonham

www.SaveOurSuper.org.au

1       Introduction

Between now and 2025 the compulsory “superannuation guarantee” (SG) contribution to superannuation is legislated to increase in steps from 9.5% of gross income to 12%.

This move is being opposed by some people, particularly the Grattan Institute (see https://grattan.edu.au/report/money-in-retirement), amplified by op-eds in the press.

Unfortunately, formal “think tank” and academic reports tend to be inaccessible to the average reader. Calculations may be opaque; and journalists often manage to make the impending increase look quite complicated and confusing.

It does not have to be so.  This short note explores the immediate consequences of the legislated increase in the SG rate from 9.5% to 12% and introduces an alternative proposal to increase the SG rate to 10%, or even leave it unchanged, and drop the contribution tax entirely.

Click here to download PDF version

2       The issues

The table below lists what I perceive to be the main points of concern, and a brief comment on each.  This is provided for context, not as a detailed commentary on any specific position.

Perceived problem Comment
(a)Retirees already have enough money so there is no need to beef up super. Depending on investment returns, current SG contributions will only provide an initial retirement income of 14% to 25%, or so, of final employment income (depending on investment choices).
(b)Increasing the SG rate will depress incomes. The government has reportedly asked ANU to advise specifically on this issue.  Gross incomes will fall by 2.23% (given assumptions detailed in the text), but there is an alternative.
(c)Increasing retirees’ assets will disproportionately reduce their age pension entitlement This reflects a problem with the structure of the age pension, not super.  In any event it will take a decade or so to become significant, leaving plenty of time to fix the structural issue.
(d)The budget can’t afford the cost The cost to the government of the planned increases, per employee, is equivalent to about 0.5% of their gross income – the equivalent of a modest tax cut.

Each of these issues is discussed in more detail below.  The intention is not to provide detailed rebuttals of any specific point of view, but rather to add context to the upcoming increase, and to suggest an alternative approach.

3       How much does the SG provide?

It can be a daunting task to work out how much superannuation one will have in retirement, what its real value will be and how that might relate to one’s income needs.

Fortunately, help is available from on-line calculators such as the excellent one provided by ASIC   (https://moneysmart.gov.au/how-super-works/superannuation-calculator) which also provides detailed actuarially determined estimates of long term investment returns, fees and earnings for several common investment styles, as well as estimates of inflation and wages growth (as reflected in rising living standards).

A common measure, used by the OECD for example, for assessing retirement funding systems is the replacement ratio, which is the initial income in retirement divided by the final employment income.  (Obviously, this only makes sense for someone who remains in steady employment up to retirement and doesn’t apply to those with a more fractured employment history). 

It is generally accepted that a replacement ratio of 70% represents good practice and, in the absence of better information, it seems to “feel” about right.

Fig 1 shows the replacement ratio expected just from current SG contributions and their compounded investment returns, assuming

  • SG rate is 9.5%, taxed at 15%
  • Wages growth is 3.2%
  • Length of employment is 45 years
  • On retirement, superannuation is converted to an allocated pension from which 5% per annum is drawn as income in the early years.
  • Complications such as contribution caps are ignored.

The simple conclusion from Fig 1 is that, however the superannuation account is invested, the SG contributions alone will not provide anything like a 70% replacement ratio. 

Most people will need to supplement their SG contributions substantially with further voluntary superannuation contributions, the age pension, or other investments outside superannuation, in order to live at a level anything like what they were used to.

There is thus a lot of scope to increase the SG contributions, which goes a long way toward refuting Issue 2(a). 

4       How will the SG rate increase affect pre-retirement incomes?

To keep things simple, we’ll exclude from consideration those who are on a very low income, those who are subject to Division 293 tax (incomes over $250,000) and those who are already at or near the concessional contribution cap. We’ll also assume that all income derives from employment.  Finally, in the interests of simplicity, we’ll assume that the increase takes place in one step rather than being staged over several years.

It is highly likely that employer bargaining power is such that increasing the SG contribution rate will not affect total income packages (i.e. gross income plus SG contributions).  The calculations below assume that this is so – it is a key assumption of this paper.

Note, however, that in real life salary negotiations are not necessarily cut and dried.  So, a push to restore a previous total package value might not be immediate but be buried in subsequent increments, or it might manifest as additional pressure in future negotiations.

To be able to work this through mathematically, however, we make the simplifying assumption that incomes will adjust immediately.

It’s also important to keep in mind that while a mathematical model produces precise, neat and tidy results, these are only as good as the initial assumptions – the real world is much messier.  The important function of an analysis such as this one is not so much to produce precise predictions, but rather to lay bare the way in which key variables (in this instance: income, income tax, SG rate and contribution tax) all interact.  Better understanding should lead to better decision making.

With these cautions in mind, let’s move on.  Some straightforward arithmetic, illustrated in Table 1, shows that the immediate consequences of increasing the SG rate will be as follows:

  • SG contributions will rise by 23.5%
  • Gross incomes will fall by 2.23%
  • Net SG contributions will rise by 23.5%, corresponding to 1.90% of initial gross income
  • Government income tax receipts will fall by an amount which depends on income.

Table 1 shows how the numbers work out for an initial gross income of $100,000:

Table 1

  • The top line reflects the assumption of no change in the total income package
  • so, there must be a drop in gross income (2nd line)
  • and therefore, the government’s income tax receipts will fall (3rd line)
  • as will the individual’s net income (4th line).
  • The SG contribution goes up by 23.5% (5th line).
  • The government claws back an extra 23.5% contributions tax (6th line)
  • leaving a net contribution which is also 23.5% higher than before (7th line).

In summary, the superannuation account of the individual currently earning $100,000 nets an extra $1,897 per year.  In the short term, this is a zero-sum game (the savings have to be paid for): $1,295 is provided by the individual (reduced net income offset by lower income tax) and $603 is provided by the government (reduced income tax receipts offset by higher contribution tax).

In other words, the individual saves more, and the government also contributes.

Although this is a zero-sum game in the short term, that is not the case in the long term.  Superannuation savings provide a massive investment resource for the nation, and a more financially secure retiree population will require less government support.  There is a large net benefit to the nation from supporting and incentivising long-term saving.

Although Table 1 is worked for $100,000 initial gross income, the same 2.23% fall in gross income and 23.5% increase in net SG contribution occurs for any other initial income. 

The boost to SG contributions then flows through to provide a valuable 23.5% increase in the value of SG contributions and their accumulated investment returns at any time through to retirement, and consequently the same percentage increase in both earnings and earnings tax.

A partial response to Issue 2(b), therefore, is: yes, the planned increase in SG rate will depress gross incomes by 2.23%. 

5       How is the cost shared between government and individual?

Before the increase, the net SG contribution is 8.075%, after allowing for the 15% contributions tax, so a 23.5% increase in that corresponds to 1.90% of the initial gross income.  That 1.90% must be paid for, and as we have seen the cost is shared between the individual and the government.

Fig 2 shows the split for a wide range of initial incomes, the structure in the graphs reflecting the complicated structure of income tax rates.

The cost to government averages about 0.5% of gross income (for incomes between $50,000 and $180,000) and that helps put Issue 2(d) in context: it is of similar magnitude to a modest income tax reduction.

The cost should not be onerous for the government and could be funded by cancelling or reducing less important programs, or by working with greater efficiency (meant literally, not as a euphemism for sacking people which only pushes costs back to individuals).

Incidentally, the cost to government is sometimes compared to the cost of fixing other significant problems, such as Newstart.  This is the wrong way to evaluate the priority of a project: it should be compared to the least important project, which can most easily be dropped, not to other important projects.

6       How quickly will the effects be felt?

The effects on net income and taxes discussed above will be immediate, but the impact on retirement income will take time to evolve – about a decade for effects to become noticeable and four decades for the complete benefit. 

Superannuation operates over the very long term, which means the sooner problems are fixed the better. The current financial climate does not justify delay.

Two issues which will eventually emerge but will be insignificant for the first couple of decades are:

  • Earnings taxes on superannuation investments will increase by 23.5%.
  • Age pension entitlements will decrease for people on low-to-moderate-incomes.

Both benefit the government.  However, the age pension needs significant modification to correct other fundamental problems:

In short, there is plenty of time and opportunity to make sure that Issue 2(c) will not become a problem.

7       An alternative proposal

The above calculations highlight something quite bizarre about concessional superannuation contributions: the superannuation guarantee compels people to save for their retirement, but the contributions tax immediately undermines that – now you see it, now you don’t!

The system would be much neater and easier to understand if the contributions tax were abolished.

That would also make voluntary concessional contributions (up to the cap) more attractive, thus encouraging more saving, but let’s look more closely at what it would mean for compulsory SG contributions.

As we have seen the upcoming increase in SG rate will increase compulsory net contributions to superannuation by 23.5%, given the assumption that gross incomes are unaffected, so let’s take that as an objective and see how it would be achieved without the contributions tax.

The answer is that the SG rate then only needs to be increased to 10%, rather than 12%.  Net contributions will increase by 23.3% which is almost identical to 23.5%, but the split in cost between the government and individual is changed significantly.

Table 2 shows the detailed figures for a gross income of $100,000:

Table 2

and Fig 3 shows the split in costs between government and individual for a range of gross incomes:

From the government’s point of view, this proposal is more expensive by about 1% of gross income than the increase currently legislated – it is still the equivalent of a modest tax cut across the board.  Staging this change over several years would further reduce the budgetary shock. 

From the individual’s point of view, the cost has reduced to about a quarter of a percent of gross income, which in normal times most people would not notice.

However, these are not normal times: the aftermath of this summer’s fires and the developing coronavirus scenario mean that many people are or will be under severe financial pressure.  The government is currently working to provide significant stimulus in response.  The government has also reportedly asked ANU to advise the government on whether the upcoming increase will affect incomes.

As shown above, they certainly will do so, and it is tempting to see this as a strong argument against making any increase at all.

However, it is easy in times of crisis to neglect long term issues, banking problems for future generations.

The government could find it attractive, therefore, to demonstrate a continued commitment to long term saving by dropping the contributions tax, while leaving the SG rate at 9.5% so there is no additional cost for individuals. 

If that approach is followed, the boost to net SG contributions will be 17.6% instead of 23.5% – a little less, but still a sizeable improvement for the long term. 

To see what that would mean, we return to Fig 1 and consider someone who chooses a “Balanced” investment option for their super.  Using ASIC’s figures, that would give a replacement ratio of 20% under the current rules for the assets derived from SG contributions. 

The initial retirement income would thus be 24.7% of final employment income under the current plan (23.5% improvement), or 23.5% of final employment income if the SG rate remains at 9.5% and the contributions tax is dropped (17.6% improvement).  Either way, it is a significant improvement, while still leaving a considerable gap to be filled by extra voluntary saving, or the age pension, depending on the retiree’s circumstances.

8       About the author

Jim Bonham (BSc (Sydney), PhD (Qld), Dip Corp Mgt, FRACI) is a retired scientist (physical chemistry). His career spanned 7 years as an academic followed by 25 years in the pulp and paper industry, where he managed scientific research and the development of new products and processes. He has been retired for 14 years and has run an SMSF for 17 years.  He will not be affected by any change to the superannuation guarantee.

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Save Our Super submission: Consumer Advocacy Body for Superannuation

Click here for the PDF document

13 January 2020

The Manager
Retirement Income Policy Division
Treasury
Langton Cres
Parkes ACT 2600

Save Our Super submission:  Consumer Advocacy Body for Superannuation

Dear Sir/Madam

Save Our Super has recently prepared an extensive Submission to the Retirement Income Review dealing in part with the many ‘consumer’ issues triggered by the structure of retirement income policy and the frequent and complex legislative change to that policy.  

That Submission was lodged with the Review’s Treasury Secretariat on 10 January 2020 and a copy is attached to the e-mail forwarding this letter. It serves as an example of the analysis of super and retirement policy and of the advocacy that superannuation fund members, both savers and retirees, can contribute.  Its four authors’ backgrounds show the wide range of experience that can be useful in the consumer advocacy role. 

We note both the policy and the advocacy consultations are running simultaneously, exemplifying the pressures Government legislative activity places on meaningful consumer input.  Consumer representation is necessarily more reliant on volunteer and part-time contributions than the work of industry and union lobbyists and the juggernaut of government legislative and administrative initiatives.

Given the breadth, complexity and fundamentally important nature of the issues raised for the Retirement Income Review by its Consultation Paper, we have prioritised our submission to that Review over the issues raised by the idea of a Consumer Advocacy Body.  This letter serves as a brief submission and as a ‘place holder’ for Save Our Super’s interest in the consumer advocacy issues.

The idea of a consumer advocacy body is worthwhile in trying to improve member information, engagement and voice in superannuation and in the formation of better, more stable and more trustworthy retirement income policy.  It should help government to understand the perspectives of superannuation members.

Save Our Super was formed from our frustration at the evolution of superannuation and broader retirement income policies.  We contributed as best we could to the rushed and heavily constrained Government consultations on, and Parliamentary Committee inquiries into, the complex retirement income policy changes that took effect in 2017. One example of our inputs is https://saveoursuper.org.au/save-supers-joint-submission-senate-committee-two-superannuation-bills/ .

For the consultations on the Consumer Advocacy Body for Superannuation, we limit our comments here to point 1 on the Consultation’s brief web page, https://treasury.gov.au/consultation/c2019-38640 :

Functions and outcomes: What core functions and outcomes do you consider could be delivered by the advocacy body? What additional functions and outcomes could also be considered? What functions would the advocacy body provide that are not currently available?”

Key roles

  • Consult with superannuation fund members on their concerns, including issues of legal and regulatory complexity, frequent legislative change and legislative risk which has become destructive of trust in superannuation and its rule-making.
  • Commission or perform research arising from consultations and reporting of member concerns.
  • Tap perspectives of all superannuation users, whether young, mid-career, or near-retirement savers, as well as of part- or fully self-funded retirees.
  • Publish reporting of savers’ concerns to Government, at least twice-yearly and in advance of annual budget cycles.
  • Contribute an impact statement – as envisaged in the lapsed Superannuation (Objectives) Bill – of the effects of changes to any legislation (not just super legislation) on retirement income (interpreted broadly to include the assets, net income and general well-being of retirees, now and in the future).

The advocacy body should:

  • take a long-term view, and could be made the authority to administer, review or critique the essential modelling referred to in Save Our Super’s submission to the Retirement Income Review. Ideally, the  Consumer Advocacy Body should have the freedom to commission Treasury to conduct such modelling, and/or to use any other capable body.
  • give appropriate representation and support to SMSFs, and be prepared to advocate for them against the interests of large APRA-regulated funds when necessary.  
  • advocate specifically for the very large number of people with quite small superannuation accounts, when their interests are different from those of people with relatively large balances.

The biggest risk to the advocacy body in our view is that it would over time be hijacked by special interest groups, or hobbled by its terms of reference.  Careful thought in its establishment, key staffing choices and strong political support would be helpful to protect against these risks. 

Membership issues

  • Membership of the Body should be part-time, funded essentially per diem and with cost reimbursement only for participation in the information gathering and consumer advocacy processes.  A small part-time secretariat could be provided from resources in, say, PM&C or Treasury. 
  • Membership opportunities should be advertised.
  • Membership of the Body should be strictly limited to individuals or entities that exist purely to advocate for the interests of superannuation fund members. (This would include any cooperative representation of Self-Managed Superannuation Funds.) We would counsel against allowing membership to industry entities which might purport  to advocate on behalf of their superannuation fund members, but might also inject perspectives that favour their own commercial interests.
  • Membership should include individuals with membership in (on the one hand) commercial or industry super funds and (on the other hand) Self-Managed Superannuation Funds.  We see no need to ensure equal representation of commercial and industry funds, though we would be wary if representation was only of those in industry funds or only commercial funds.
  • We offer no view at this stage on whether the Superannuation Consumers Centre would be a useful anchor for a new role, but we would suggest avoiding duplication.

Functions not currently available

The consultation asks what functions the Consumer Advocacy Body for Superannuation could perform that are not presently being performed.  SOS’s submission to the Retirement Income Review and earlier submissions on the changes to retirement income policy that took effect in 2017 shows the range of superannuation members’ advocacy concerns that are not at present being met.  

Prior attempts to establish consultation arrangements for superannuation members appear to us to have focussed mostly on the disengagement and limited financial literacy of some superannuation fund members.  Correctives to those concerns have heretofore looked to financial literacy education and better access to higher quality financial advice. Clearly such measures have their place.

But in the view of Save Our Super, these problems arise in larger part from the complexity and rapid change of superannuation and Age Pension laws, and in the nature of the Superannuation Guarantee Charge. Nothing predicts disengagement by customers and underperformance and overcharging by suppliers more assuredly than government compulsion to consume a product that would not otherwise be bought because it is too complex to understand, too often changed and widely distrusted.

There needs to be more consumer policy advocacy aimed at getting the policies right, simple, clear and stable, as was attempted in the 2006 – 2007 Simplified Super reforms.

Other issues

In the time available, we offer no views on questions 2,3 and 4, which are more for government administrators.

Yours faithfully

Jack Hammond, QC

Founder, Save Our Super

Click here for the PDF document

Submission by Save Our Super in response to Retirement Income Review Consultation Paper – November 2019

Submission by Save Our Super in response to Retirement Income Review Consultation Paper – November 2019

by Terrence O’Brien, Jack Hammond, Jim Bonham and Sean Corbett

saveoursuper.org.au

10 January 2020

Click here for the full PDF document

Summary

  1. The Review’s Terms of Reference seek a fact base on how the retirement income system is working.  This is a vital quest.  Such information, founded on publication of long-term modelling extending over the decades over which policy has its cumulative effect, has disappeared over the last decade.
  2. Not coincidentally, retirement income policy has suffered from recent failures to set clear objectives in a long-term framework of rising personal incomes, demographic ageing, lengthening life expectancy at retirement age, weak overall national saving, low household and company saving and a persistent tendency to government dissaving.
  3. A new statement of retirement income policy objectives should be:
    • to facilitate rising real retirement incomes for all;
    • to encourage higher savings in superannuation so progressively more of the age-qualified can self-fund retirement at higher living standards than provided by the Age Pension;
    • to thus reduce the proportion of the age-qualified receiving the Age Pension, improving its sustainability as a safety net and reducing its tax burden on the diminishing proportion of the population of working age; and
    • to contribute in net terms to raising national saving, as lifetime saving for self-funded retirement progressively displaces tax-funded recurrent expenditures on the Age Pension.
  1. With the actuarial value of the Age Pension to a homeowning couple now well over $1 million, self-funding a higher retirement living standard than the Age Pension will require large saving balances at retirement.  It is unclear that political parties accept this.  It seems to Save Our Super that politicians champion the objective of more self-funded retirees and fewer dependent on the Age Pension but seem dubious about allowing the means to that objective.
  1. Save Our Super highlights fragmentary evidence from the private sector suggesting retirement income policies to 2017 were generating a surprisingly strong growth in self-funded retirement, reducing spending on the Age Pension as a share of GDP, and (prima facie) raising living standards in retirement (Table 1). (Anyone who becomes a self-funded retiree can be assumed to be better off than if they had rearranged their affairs to receive the Age Pension.)  Sustainability of the retirement system for both retirees and working age taxpayers funding the Age Pension seemed to be strengthening. These apparent trends are little known, have not been officially explained, and deserve the Review’s close attention in establishing a fact base.
  1. Retirement policy should be evaluated in a social cost-benefit framework, in which the benefits include any contraction over time in the proportion of the age-eligible receiving the Age Pension, any corresponding rise in the proportion enjoying a higher self-funded retirement living standard of their choice, and any rise in net national savings; while
    the costs include a realistic estimate of any superannuation ‘tax expenditures’ (this often used term is placed in quotes because it is generally misleading – see subsequent discussion) that reduce the direct expenditures on the Age Pension. Such a framework was developed and applied in the 1990s but has since fallen into disuse.
  1. Policy changes that took effect in 2017 have suffered from a lack of enumeration of the long-term net economic and
    fiscal impacts on retirement income trends. They also damaged confidence in the retirement rules, and the rules for changing those rules. Extraordinarily, many people trying to manage their retirement have found legislative risk in recent years to be a greater problem than investment risk. Save Our Super believes the Government should re-commit to the grandfathering practices of the preceding quarter century to rebuild the confidence essential for long-term saving under
    the restrictions of the superannuation system.
  1. Views on whether retirement policy is fair and sustainable differ widely, in large part because the only official analysis that has been sustained is so-called ‘tax expenditure’ estimates using a subjective hypothetical ‘comprehensive income tax’ benchmark that has never had democratic support.
  1. This prevailing ‘tax expenditure’ measure is unfit for purpose. It is conceptually indefensible; it produces wildly unrealistic
    estimates of hypothetical revenue forgone from superannuation (now said to be $37 billion for 2018-19 and rising); and it presents an imaginary gross cost outside the sensible cost-benefit framework used in the past.  It also presents (including, regrettably, in the Review’s Consultation Paper) an imaginary one-off effect as though it could be a
    recurrent flow similar to the actual recurrent expenditures on the Age Pension.
  1. An alternative Treasury superannuation ‘tax expenditure’ estimate, more defensible because it has the desirable characteristic of not discriminating against saving or supressing work effort, is based on an expenditure tax benchmark. It estimates annual revenue forgone of $7 billion, steady over time, not $37 billion rising strongly. 
  1. Additional to the four evaluative criteria proposed in the Consultation Paper, Save Our Super recommends a fifth: personal choice and accountability. Over the 70-year horizon of individuals’ commitments to retirement saving, personal circumstances differ widely.  As saving rates rise, encouraging substantial individual choice of saving profiles to achieve preferred retirement living standards is desirable.
  1. We also restate a core proposition perhaps unusual to the modern ear: personal saving is good. The consumption that is forgone in order to save is not just money; it is real resources that are made available to others with higher immediate demands for consumption or investment. Saving and the investment it finances are the foundation for rising living standards. Those concerned at the possibility of inequality arising from more saving should address the issue directly by presenting arguments for more redistribution, not by hobbling saving.
  1. While retirement income ‘adequacy’ is a sensible criterion for considering the Age Pension, ‘adequacy’ makes no sense as a policy guide to either compulsory or voluntary superannuation contributions towards self-funded retirement. Adequacy of self-funded retirement income is properly a matter for individuals’ preferences and saving choices.
  1. The task for superannuation policy in the broader retirement income structure is not to achieve some centrally-approved
    ‘adequate’ self-funded retirement income, however prescribed. It is to roughly offset the government’s systemic disincentives to saving from welfare spending and income taxing. Once government has struck a reasonable, stable and sustainable tax structure from that perspective, citizens should be entitled to save what they like, at any stage of life.
  1. The Super Guarantee Charge’s optimum future level is a matter for practical marginal analysis rather than ideology. Would raising it by a percentage point add more to benefits (higher savings balances at retirement for self-funded retirees) than to costs (e.g. reduced incomes over a working lifetime, more burden on young workers, or on poor workers who may not save enough to retire on more than the Age Pension)?
  1. The coherence of the Age Pension and superannuation arrangements is less than ideal. Very high effective marginal tax rates on saving arise from the increased Age Pension assets test taper rate, with the result that many retirees are trapped in a retirement strategy built on a substantial part Age Pension.  Save Our Super also identifies six problem areas where inconsistent indexation practices of superannuation and Age Pension parameters compound through time to reduce super savings and retirement benefits relative to average earnings. These problems reduce confidence in the stability of the system and should be fixed.
  1. Our analysis points to policy choices that would give more Australians ‘skin in the game’ of patient saving and long term investing for a well performing Australian economy.  Those policies would yield rising living standards for all, both those of working age and retirees.  Such policies would give more personal choice over the lifetime profile of saving and retirement living standards; fewer cases where compulsory savings violate individual needs, and more engaged personal oversight of a more competitive and efficient superannuation industry.

About the authors

Terrence O’Brien is an honours graduate in economics from the University of Queensland, and has a master of economics from the Australian National University. He worked from the early 1970s in many areas of the Treasury, including taxation
policy, fiscal policy and international economic issues. His senior positions have also included several years in the Office of National Assessments, as resident economic representative of Australia at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, as Alternate Executive Director on the Boards of the World Bank Group, and as First Assistant Commissioner at the Productivity Commission.

Jack Hammond LLB (Hons), QC is Save Our Super’s founder. He was a Victorian barrister for more than three decades.
He is now retired from the Victorian Bar. Prior to becoming a barrister, he was an Adviser to Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, and an Associate to Justice Brennan, then of the Federal Court of Australia. Before that he served as a Councillor on the Malvern City Council (now Stonnington City Council) in Melbourne.

Jim Bonham (BSc (Sydney), PhD (Qld), Dip Corp Mgt, FRACI) is a retired scientist (physical chemistry).  His career spanned 7 years as an academic followed by 25 years in the pulp and paper industry, where he managed scientific research and the development of new products and processes.  He has been retired for 14 years has run an SMSF for 17 years.

Sean Corbett has over 25 years’ experience in the superannuation industry, with a particular specialisation in retirement income products. He has been employed as overall product manager at Connelly Temple (the second provider of allocated pensions in Australia) as well as product manager for annuities at both Colonial Life and Challenger Life. He has a commerce degree from the University of Queensland and an honours degree and a master’s degree in economics from Cambridge University.

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Click here for the full PDF document

Retirement Income Review Consultation Paper (November 2019)

H:\MCD\Publishing\Graphic Design Services Team\Projects\2019\Retirement Income Review 29901\proofs\Retirement Income Review Cover_final.jpgRetirement Income Review Consultation Paper

November 2019

© Commonwealth of Australia 2019

Click here to view/print the PDF

Retiree time-bombs

By Jim Bonham and Sean Corbett

www.saveoursuper.org.au

1 Abstract

The complexity of superannuation and the age pension conceals at least 6 time-bombs – slowly evolving automatic changes to the detriment of retirees – caused by inconsistent indexation: Division 293 tax, currently only for high income earners, will become mainstream.Shrinking of the transfer balance cap relative to the average wage (which is a measure of community living standards) will reduce the relative value of allocated pensions.Shrinking of the transfer balance cap, relative to wages, will increase taxation on superannuation in retirement. Prohibiting non-concessional contributions when the total superannuation balance exceeds the transfer balance cap will constrict superannuation balances more over time.The age pension will become less accessible, as the upper asset threshold shrinks relative to wages.Part age pensions, for a given value of assets relative to wages, will reduce.


 For PDF version click here

2 Introduction

The Terms of Reference of the Review of the Retirement Income System require it to establish a fact base of the current retirement income system that will improve understanding of its operations and outcomes.

 Important goals are to achieve adequate retirement incomes, fiscal sustainability and appropriate incentive for self-provision. The Retirement Income System Review will identify:

  • “how the retirement income system supports Australians in retirement;”
  • “the role of each pillar [the means-tested age pension, compulsory superannuation and voluntary savings, including home ownership] in supporting Australians through retirement;”
  • “distributional impacts across the population over time; and”
  • “the impact of current policy settings on public finances.”

For the detailed Terms of Reference follow the link at https://joshfrydenberg.com.au/latest-news/review-of-the-retirement-income-system/.

Terrence O’Brien and Jack Hammond have made a number of suggestions for the Review to consider (https://saveoursuper.org.au/save-our-super-suggestions-for-review-of-retirement-income-system/).  In particular, at the close of their paper they wrote:

9. Let the modelling speak

“Only long-term modelling can show which measures are likely to have the best payoffs in greatest retirement income improvements at least budget cost. Choice of which measures to develop further are matters for judgement, balancing the possible downside that extensive policy change outside a superannuation charter may only further damage trust in retirement income policy setting and in Government credibility. “

This paper expands on that point, by presenting the results of straightforward but informative modelling which shows how the age pension, superannuation and voluntary savings (including home ownership) operate and interact – particularly over extended time periods.

A disturbing problem, because it is not obvious, arises from the inappropriate, or no, indexation of various parameters within both the superannuation system and the age pension system. This was briefly mentioned by Sean Corbett (https://www.superguide.com.au/retirement-planning/politician-greed-destroying-super), but has otherwise gained little or no attention.

Over the medium to long term, this inappropriate indexation will result in higher taxation, reduced age pension and superannuation for many people and a generally worse retirement outcome.  If this is the deliberate intent of the government, it should be declared.  Otherwise the problem should be corrected.

These indexation issues are the retiree time-bombs.  The Review must come to grips with them, whether or not they are intentional, and they are the focus of this paper.

3 The importance of the average wage

The impact of superannuation on an individual typically extends from the first job, through retirement to death; or perhaps even further until the death of a partner or another dependent.  For many, the age pension provides critical income through all or part of their retirement.

Accordingly, formal analysis of retirement funding often must extend over many decades, making suitable indexation an extremely important matter.

The full age pension is indexed to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) or the Pensioner and Beneficiary Living Cost Index, or to Male Total Average Weekly Earnings (MTAWE) if that is higher, which it usually is.  In May 2019 MTAWE was $1,475.60 per week or approximately $76,730 per annum.

This method of indexing is intended to allow retirees receiving a full age pension to maintain their living standard relative to that of the general community – MTAWE being taken as an indicator of that standard – and it is critical to the design of the full age pension.

For long term modelling ASIC’s Money Smart superannuation calculator suggests a combination of 2% for CPI inflation, plus 1.2% for rising living standards, giving an inflation index of 3.2% (https://www.moneysmart.gov.au/tools-and-resources/calculators-and-apps/superannuation-calculator).  In this paper, that figure of 3.2% is assumed to represent future wages growth. 

This is a modelling exercise, not a prediction, so the precise value of wages growth assumed in this paper is not particularly important – use of a somewhat different figure would only change details, not the big picture – but the distinction between CPI growth and wages growth is important, the latter usually being higher.

4 Division 293 tax

Division 293 tax (see https://www.ato.gov.au/Individuals/Super/In-detail/Growing-your-super/Division-293-tax—information-for-individuals/) is a good place to begin this analysis because the problem is straightforward.

Division 293 tax has the effect of increasing the superannuation contributions tax for high income earners.  The details don’t matter here, as we are only concerned with the threshold: $300,000 when the tax was introduced in 2012, subsequently reduced to $250,000 in 2017. 

During this period the average wage has been rising steadily, which means the reach of this tax is extending further and further down the income distribution.  Eventually, if the threshold is not increased, it must reach the average wage, by which time Division 293 will have become a mainstream tax.

Fig 1 shows the actual and projected values (in nominal dollars) of the tax threshold and of the average wage.  The two are projected to be roughly equal within about 30 years.

If Labor had been successful in the 2019 election, the Division 293 threshold would have been further reduced to $200,000 so that, barring further changes, it would have been equal to the average wage in about 25 years.

Fig 2 shows the same data replotted by dividing the Division 293 threshold for each year by the average wage for that year and expressing the result as a percentage.  Expressing data relative to the average wage in each year, as in Fig 2, is often an informative way to show long term trends.

If the Division 293 threshold remains unchanged in nominal dollars, it will continue to decrease relative to the average wage, and so a greater percentage of taxpayers will be caught each year.  They will find their after-tax superannuation contributions, and hence their balance at retirement, will decrease as will their subsequent retirement income from superannuation. 

This will reduce the effectiveness of superannuation as a long-term savings mechanism.  People’s confidence in superannuation will be eroded, as it thus becomes less effective.

Failure to index the Division 293 threshold to wages growth (which would confine its effect to the same small percentage of high wage earners in future years) is taxation by stealth and makes it the 1st time-bomb.

The very simple solution is for the government to commit to indexing the Division 293 threshold in line with wages growth. 

5 The transfer balance cap

5.1       The value of allocated pensions

The transfer balance cap, currently $1.6 million, is the maximum amount with which one can start a tax-free allocated pension in retirement.  Any additional superannuation money must either be withdrawn or left in an accumulation account where taxable income is taxed at 15%.

Unlike the Division 293 threshold the transfer balance cap is indexed, but it is indexed to CPI inflation (assumed to be 2% in this paper) rather than to wages (3.2%), and adjustments are only made in $100,000 increments.

Indexing the transfer balance cap to CPI means that over time the starting value of an allocated pension account will become lower relative to the average wage, because the latter rises faster.

This is illustrated in Fig 3, where projected values of MTAWE are shown in orange; and the minimum (5%) allocated pension drawn by someone starting retirement at age 65-74, with an allocated pension account balance equal to the transfer balance cap, is shown in blue.

Despite the fact that the minimum allocated pension payment amount increases every couple of years, the average wage increases faster.

The following table shows some of the data behind Fig 3, for someone age 65 to 74 retiring in 2019, compared to retirement in 2050:

Year Transfer Balance Cap Allocated Pension (AP) MTAWE Ratio AP/MTAWE
2019 $1.6 m $80,000 $76,730 104%
2050 $2.9 m $145,000 $203,724 71%

This is a big drop in relative living standard for superannuants: 104% of MTAWE in 2019 down to 71% in 2050.

This degradation, relative to community living standards, of the allocated pension provided by the transfer balance cap is the 2nd time-bomb for the transfer balance cap.

5.2 Taxing super in retirement

Because the transfer balance cap will grow more slowly than wages, one expects that in the future an increasing proportion of a retiree’s superannuation will be held in taxable accumulation accounts rather than in tax-free allocated pension accounts.

This is another instance of taxation by stealth.  It is the 3rd time-bomb.

5.3 Non-concessional contributions

Non-concessional contributions (from post-income-tax money) are currently limited to $100,000 per annum.  That limit is indexed to wages growth, like the $25,000 limit on concessional (pre-tax) contributions.

However, non-concessional contributions are only permitted when the total superannuation balance is less than the transfer balance cap which, as we have seen, is indexed to CPI.  The effect of this indexation mismatch is that the ability to make non-concessional contributions will automatically shrink, relative to wages and living standards, in the future.  Those who rely on substantial non-concessional contributions late in their working life will be particularly affected.

This is the 4th time-bomb.

6  The age pension

6.1 Basic structure

The age pension is indisputably complicated, and a brief review may be helpful.

Detailed descriptions can be found at

https://www.humanservices.gov.au/individuals/services/centrelink/age-pension

https://www.dss.gov.au/seniors/benefits-payments/age-pension

https://www.dss.gov.au/benefits-payments/indexation-rates-july-2019

A somewhat simplified description is as follows:

The full pension for a member of a couple is lower than for a single person. 

The full pension is reduced by the application of tests on assets and incomes – whichever test gives the greater reduction is the one that applies. 

Assets reduce the age pension by $78 per annum per thousand dollars’ worth of assets (often expressed as $3 per fortnight per $1,000) above a threshold.

Despite frequent claims to the contrary, including on the Human Services website quoted above, the retiree’s home is assessed by the asset test.

The assessment is achieved by applying an asset test threshold which is lower for homeowners than for renters (currently by $210,500 for singles), but the effect is exactly the same as using the renter threshold and treating the home as a non-financial asset worth $210,500 – indexed to CPI.

Regardless of how the process is defined mathematically, claiming that the home is not assessed is simply false.

Income reduces the age pension by 50 cents per dollar of income earned above a threshold, except that

  • The first $7,800 per annum of employment income is not counted
  • Income from financial assets (bank accounts, shares, superannuation accounts etc) is deemed to be 1%, for asset value below a threshold, and 3% above that; then the deemed income is used in the income test.

The full age pension, for singles or members of a couple, is usually indexed to MTAWE as discussed previously.  Every other relevant figure (the income test deeming threshold, the asset test threshold, the assumed value of the home – or, equivalently, the homeowner’s asset threshold) is indexed to CPI.

Apart from the home, the most significant asset which pensioners own is likely to be their financial assets, so a convenient way to describe the age pension graphically is to plot the value of the pension against the value of financial assets – as shown in Fig 4 for a single renter and for a homeowner, with no significant assets or income other than the financial assets.

Additional non-financial assets would shift the asset-test-controlled region further to the left.  Additional income lowers the income-test-controlled part of the curve.  For example, in Fig 5, each person is assumed to earn $20,000 per year.

Graphs such as Fig 4 allow visualisation of the complex behaviour of the age pension, which can otherwise be very confusing.  For example, a quick glance at Fig 4 shows that for the case considered, owning a home will reduce the age pension by nearly $20,000 per year for a single age pensioner with around $600,000 worth of financial assets but the effect is far less with $400,000 worth of assets.

The curves also show the steep asset-test-controlled region, where the age pension decreases at a rate of 7.8% ($78 per annum per $1,000 of assets), which tends to overwhelm the increase in actual earnings from the assets.  Although it is a major problem in itself it will not be discussed in detail here, in the interest of brevity.

6.2 The age pension time bombs

Figs 4 and 5 give snapshots at a particular point in time.  To examine the behaviour of the age pension over extended periods, however, it is best to relate asset values and income to the average wage.

This is done in Fig 6 which shows the projected curves over the next 4 decades for a single renter, with no other assets, and in Fig 7 for a member of a homeowner couple.  Note that each curve is calculated using the projected average wage for that year.

Except for part of the full age pension area of the curves, where they all overlap because the age pension is indexed to wages growth, the curves show a steady trend towards lower age pension for a given financial asset base.

Because only the full pension is indexed to wages growth and other parameters are indexed to CPI, it is mathematically inevitable that the structure of the system will automatically change slowly over time.  Relative to living standards, as indicated by the average wage:

  • Part age pensions will become harder to get, as the upper asset threshold shrinks.
  • Part age pensions for a given value of financial assets will reduce.

These are the 5th and 6th time-bombs.

What we are seeing here is universal: if different components of the system are indexed in different ways, the structure of the system will automatically change over time – even if the age pension is radically restructured.

6.3 A case study: effects of indexation on the individual retiree.

It is obvious in Figs 6 and 7 that someone beginning retirement in future years will receive less age pension for a given value of assets, when both are expressed relative to the average wage. i.e. to community living standards.

Fig 7 shows how the 5th and 6th time-bombs  work for a specific case: a single homeowner who retires at age 67 with 8 times MTAWE ($614,000 in 2019) in an allocated pension account, from which only the age-based minimum is withdrawn, and who has no other income or assets.

Four cases are shown, for retirement in 2019, 2030, 2040 or 2050.

The allocated pension is assumed to be invested in a “balanced” fund returning 4.8% nominal, less 0.5% investment fees (these values are taken from the ASIC Money Smart superannuation calculator, neglecting the small administration fee).

Because it is assumed that the retiree in each case starts with 8 times MTAWE in the allocated pension account, both the account balance and the minimum withdrawal, as a percentage of MTAWE only depend on age.  Thus, there is only one line for allocated pension income in Fig 8.  It falls fairly steadily as capital is depleted in the account.

As the asset value falls, the retiree eventually becomes entitled to a part age pension.  Starting in 2019, this retiree would begin getting a part age pension within a couple of years.  The retiree starting in 2050 would have to wait a few years longer.

Thereafter, the later retiree always gets a lower age pension, relative to MTAWE.  The full age pension – which each of these retirees approaches in their early 90s – is, however, constant as a percentage of MTAWE as already discussed.

The cause for the different treatment of full and part age pensioners is that the full pension is indexed to wages growth, while most of the factors controlling the part age pension are indexed to CPI.  If Fig 8 is reworked for a different set of assumptions (for initial balance, investment returns and withdrawal rate), the detailed shapes of the curve will alter, but the general conclusions will be unaffected.

The obvious solution is to index all parameters to wages growth, and then all the curves for part age pensions in Fig 8 will be the same and the system will be stable over time.

As it stands, the part age pension is designed to slowly become harder to get, and less generous (for a given asset value relative to living standards) – another demonstration of the 5th and 6th time-bombs.

7 Conclusion

This paper, based on relatively straightforward spreadsheet modelling, has exposed a number of time-bombs in the structure of superannuation and age pension.  These time-bombs are not particularly obvious, but they have the effect of surreptitiously increasing taxation, decreasing superannuation pensions and making the age pension harder to get and less generous.  This will reduce the prosperity of retirees and hence of the country as a whole.

The time-bombs all have their origin in failing to index all parameters in the same way.  The natural choice for an index is wages growth, because that is directly related to living standards, but if some other index is used it is still important that it be used consistently throughout the system to maintain stability.

Even if the superannuation and age pension schemes are radically altered, it remains important to index all relevant parameters in the same way.  Otherwise these time-bombs will be inevitable.

8 Disarming the time-bombs

The Review of the Retirement Income System panel is scheduled to produce a consultation paper in November 2019.

The 6 time-bombs discussed in this paper merit consideration because they touch directly on so many of the issues flagged in the Terms of Reference: “adequate retirement incomes”, “appropriate incentives for self-provision”, “improve understanding”, “outcomes”, “the role of each pillar”, “distributional impact … over time” and, most importantly, “establish a fact base”.

Identification of these time bombs is a contribution to the establishment of a fact base on retirement incomes.  Fortunately, the time bombs can be disarmed by regularising indexation throughout the superannuation and age pension systems.

30 October 2019

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