The question no-one wants to ask is – Why are APRA collecting, interpreting and then publishing information in the public domain? The answer is simple – They shouldn’t be!

Instead of regulating, APRA are now trying to play the shame game through their just released heatmaps. But there is a real risk that some of those shamed will be the wrong funds. As the founder of SuperRatings, Jeff Bresnahan says, “The problem is that no one in the industry wants to tell the regulator that they have got it wrong.”

Effectively, APRA is putting into circulation data which analyses just parts of a super fund, not the whole. By ignoring things like Governance, Advice, Insurance and Member servicing structures, consumers are not being provided with the whole picture.

As Bresnahan says, “While conflicts of interest were identified as a major issue in superannuation during the Royal Commission, it seems ironic that APRA has deliberately avoided reporting any measurement of a Fund’s Governance structure”.

In an industry which carries inherently conflicted Directors, it would appear that Governance is ignored in favour of more easily assessable information. Whether such omissions create any legal liabilities for APRA in the future remains debatable.

As a result, APRA continues its foray into unchartered territory. This is not the first time APRA have got it wrong. They have been producing performance tables for over a decade. Unfortunately, the performance tables were flawed from a usefulness perspective, in that they don’t reflect the performance of a super fund’s investment options. However, they continue to produce them and in doing so confuse and possibly mislead Australians.

And so it continues with the heatmaps. Having reviewed the heatmap methodology, SuperRatings is of the opinion that their release into the public domain may create more questions than they answer and that consumers could well be influenced into products that are inappropriate for them.

Aside from the bigger question of why APRA is publishing such data, there remain a number of problems with the methodology adopted. Critically, APRA appears to ignore implicit asset fees when measuring net investment performance.  As Bresnahan says, “This methodology can easily overstate the net benefit a member receives. Similarly, a low-cost investment option with high administration fees creates the very real possibility of consumers investing monies in cheap investment options that have no chance of outperforming the relevant index over any time period, whilst getting slugged high administration fees.”

Investment analysis since the onset of the Superannuation Guarantee in 1992 has shown that all implicit fees and performance must be analysed together on an actual net of fees basis. Many leading funds, in terms of balanced option performance, have had higher allocations than the average fund to traditionally more expensive asset classes such as infrastructure, private equity and unlisted property. These asset classes have continually outperformed cheaper alternatives.

It’s only when all actual fees and returns are combined that the range of results is clearly evident in dollar terms, as the following graph indicates. The graph shows the disparity of net earnings on a $50,000 starting balance (and $50,000 salary) with SGC contributions mapped over both the last 3 and 10 years. Notably, many of the funds that added the most value, over both the short and long term, invested into the more expensive asset classes. Driving people into low-cost options will come at the expense of future earnings, something that taxpayers will ultimately have to bear.

Net benefit trend analysis (over 3 and 10 years)

Source: SuperRatings

And the anomalies continue. The heatmaps are judging funds on short term performance over just 3 and 5 years. Whilst it will be claimed this is necessary due to the limited performance history of MySuper products, it should be noted that most funds have been around for over 25 years and that their default option provides an accurate MySuper proxy.

As Bresnahan said, “Given super is a key plank of Australia’s economic future, it seems counter-intuitive for the Government’s regulator to not measure funds over a more realistic period. Certainly, it is commonly accepted that 7, 10 and 15 year performance analysis is best practice given the long term (60 years plus) nature of superannuation membership.”

Again, a consumer moving funds due to seeing a 3-year performance gap, mid-way through an economic cycle, will no doubt be moving for the wrong reasons.

The way forward

Bresnahan says, “Australians are not stupid, but they remain frustratingly unengaged with their superannuation.” This problem remains the real challenge for much of the industry. APRA’s endeavours are admirable, but questionable at the same time. He goes on to say, “A regulator should set the structure under which funds need to operate. The morphing of this regulatory process into public comparisons leaves it open to being seen as stepping across the line. One wonders what they are actually trying to achieve by moving into this public domain.”

If APRA must continue down this path, then SuperRatings suggests that they need to concentrate on the whole picture, rather than isolated parts therein. This should, aside from earlier mentioned issues, also include:

  1. Regulations to enable consistent fee disclosures, including the inequitable use of tax deductions and transparency to members;
  2. The disclosure of risk within portfolios, both via the assumptions within their growth/defensive disclosures and accepted risk measures;
  3. Compulsory disclosure of major asset holdings;
  4. Moving members into go-forward products and removing legacy structures;
  5. Continued rationalisation of member accounts; and
  6. Increased focus on the decumulation phase and the optimisation of the alignment with retiree objectives.

Identifying poorly run funds is not difficult and APRA would be well aware of them. A series of simple measures such as the non-public fee analysis shown below, when combined with other key assessments, quickly shows those funds who have spent the past few decades masking conflicts of interest at the expense of members.

When it costs a fund over $1,200 to run every account (versus a median of $300) or a fund’s operating expenses as a percentage of assets are over two and a half times the median, then those funds bear further scrutiny. Similar work can be done across Investments, Governance, Administration and Insurance, to name a few. By putting together the whole picture, the poor funds are very quickly exposed.

Operating expenses versus size and members

Source: SuperRatings

But it’s not all gloom and doom for the process. Importantly, after 14 years of industry debate, APRA has finally made a call on what constitutes a growth asset and what constitutes a defensive asset. The growth/defensive debate remains loud within the industry but with APRA’s call of Australian Unlisted Property and Australian Unlisted Infrastructure being 25% defensive, at least there is a starting point. SuperRatings suspect this will not however be the final position.

Certainly, APRA’s front foot involvement with data will give cause for reflection for all super funds, as the funds review their results and assess whether it has any implications for their future.

SuperRatings continues to watch the evolution of the market and continues to monitor funds on their effectiveness in responding to key challenges. We look forward to seeing whether the heatmaps evolve over time and remain broadly supportive of APRA’s underlying intentions. However, we underline that this remains only part of the picture and that the risk of making providers look alike is real. In an environment where innovation is needed, regulatory settings to support innovation are vital to ensure a vibrant industry that thrives into the future resulting in better outcomes for members.

Release ends

We welcome media enquiries regarding our research or information held in our database. We are also able to provide commentary and customised tables or charts for your use.
For more information contact:

Jeff Bresnahan
Founder & Chairman
Tel: 1300 826 395
Jeff.Bresnahan@superratings.com.au

Kirby Rappell
Executive Director
Tel: 1300 826 395
Kirby.Rappell@superratings.com.au

Super funds are off to a positive start in the December quarter, regaining momentum following a rocky September and paving the way for double-digit returns for the 2019 calendar year.

While markets have come under pressure in recent months, super funds have once again proved they are up to the task of navigating the significant uncertainty in markets, geopolitics, and the global economy.

Super fund returns held up well in October, despite weakness from Australian shares and signs of softer economic growth globally. The major financials sector has come under pressure due to constrained lending, lower net interest margins, and continued fallout from the Royal Commission. IT shares also suffered a dip as investors questioned the lofty valuations of Australia’s local tech darlings.

According to SuperRatings’ estimates, the median balanced option returned a modest 0.3% in October, but the year-to-date return for 2019 is sitting at a very healthy 12.5%. The median growth option has fared even better, returning 14.4%, while the median capital stable option has delivered a respectable 7.1% to the end of October.

Over the past five years, the median balanced option has returned an estimated 7.6% p.a., compared to 8.3% p.a. from growth and 4.7% p.a. from capital stable (see table below).

Estimated accumulation returns (% p.a. to end of October 2019)

  YTD 1 yr 3 yrs 5 yrs 7 yrs 10 yrs
SR50 Growth (77-90) Index 14.4% 11.9% 10.1% 8.3% 10.1% 8.5%
SR50 Balanced (60-76) Index 12.5% 10.5% 8.9% 7.6% 9.1% 7.9%
SR50 Capital Stable (20-40) Index 7.1% 6.8% 5.0% 4.7% 5.3% 5.6%

Source: SuperRatings

Estimated pension returns (% p.a. to end of October 2019)

  YTD 1 yr 3 yrs 5 yrs 7 yrs 10 yrs
SRP50 Growth (77-90) Index 16.4% 13.3% 11.2% 9.4% 11.4% 9.5%
SRP50 Balanced (60-76) Index 13.8% 11.7% 9.8% 8.3% 9.9% 8.7%
SRP50 Capital Stable (20-40) Index 8.3% 7.7% 5.9% 5.5% 6.0% 6.4%

Source: SuperRatings

“This year has provided further solid evidence of the ability of super funds to deliver for their members through a challenging market environment,” said SuperRatings Executive Director Kirby Rappell.

“Whether it’s the US-China trade conflict, the weaker economic outlook, falling interest rates, or the rolling Brexit saga, there’s been a lot for funds to take in. This has been a real test of their discipline and ability to manage risks on the downside. Growing wealth in this environment while protecting members’ capital is a tall order, but they have managed it well.”

Shifting asset allocation key to managing risk

One of the most important trends in the superannuation industry is the broadening of members’ investments across different asset classes. Over the past five years, super funds have shifted away from Australian shares and fixed income and moved a higher proportion of funds into international shares and alternatives (see chart below).

Change in asset allocation (2009 to 2019)

Super fund asset allocations have shifted towards alternatives

Source: SuperRatings

The shift to alternatives is significant and has been the subject of debate within the industry. Alternatives include private market assets and hedge funds, which despite the negative connotations can provide an important source of diversification and downside protection when markets take a turn for the worse.

These assets tend to be less liquid, but they can play an important role for funds looking to generate income while managing risks for their members in a world characterised by low yields and growing uncertainty. However, funds should be clear about their alternatives strategy and the risks they could potentially add to members’ portfolios.

“This shift in asset allocation is in part being driven by the low interest rate environment, which has prompted super funds to reach for yield by allocating to alternatives and other less liquid assets,” said Mr Rappell.

“This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it may in fact result in a more robust asset allocation, but it’s something members should be aware of. Alternatives can help protect capital under certain market conditions, but they can also be used to boost returns by taking on some additional risk. We generally think the shift to a broader asset allocation is positive, but funds should not be complacent in ensuring risk is appropriately managed.”

A combination of factors has created fertile ground for market volatility, resulting in a bumpy ride for super members, who have experienced six negative monthly returns over the past year.

According to SuperRatings, the median balanced option return for August was an estimated -0.5%, with the negative result driven by a fall in Australian and international shares. The median growth option, which has a higher exposure to growth assets like shares, fared worse, returning an estimated -0.9%.

In contrast, the median capital stable option, which includes a higher allocation to bonds and other defensive assets, performed more favourably with an estimated return of 0.3% (see table below).

Estimated accumulation returns (% p.a. to end of August 2019)

1 month 1 year 3 years 5 years 7 years 10 years
SR50 Growth (77-90) Index -0.9% 5.2% 8.8% 8.0% 10.2% 8.5%
SR50 Balanced (60-76) Index -0.5% 5.3% 8.0% 7.5% 9.2% 8.0%
SR50 Capital Stable (20-40) Index 0.3% 5.3% 4.8% 4.8% 5.4% 5.7%

Source: SuperRatings

Investors were caught off guard in August as trade negotiations between the US and China broke down, while a range of geopolitical and market risks, including further signs of a slowing global economy, added to uncertainty.

In Australia, a disappointing GDP result for the June quarter revealed a domestic economy in a more fragile state than previously acknowledged. Action from the Reserve Bank to lower interest rates is expected to assist in stabilising markets but could be detrimental for savers and retirees who rely on interest income.

Pension products shared a similar fate in August, with the balanced pension option returning an estimated -0.6% over the month while the growth pension option returned an estimated -1.0% and the capital stable pension option was mostly flat with an estimated return of 0.3%. Long-term returns are still holding up well, with the median balanced option for accumulation members delivering 9.2% p.a. over the past seven years (in excess of the typical CPI + 3.0% target) and the median balanced pension option returning 10.2% p.a.

Estimated pension returns (% p.a. to end of August 2019)

1 month 1 year 3 years 5 years 7 years 10 years
SRP50 Growth (77-90) Index -1.0% 5.9% 9.9% 9.2% 11.5% 9.4%
SRP50 Balanced (60-76) Index -0.6% 6.2% 8.7% 8.0% 10.2% 8.8%
SRP50 Capital Stable (20-40) Index 0.3% 6.2% 5.5% 5.5% 6.3% 6.4%

Source: SuperRatings

“There will always be negative months for super members, but the timing of negative returns can have a real impact on those entering the retirement phase,” said SuperRatings Executive Director Kirby Rappell.

“For members shifting their super savings to a pension product, a number of down months in relatively quick succession will mean they begin drawing down on a smaller pool of savings than they might have anticipated. As members get closer to retirement, it’s important that they review their risk tolerance to make sure they can retire even if the market takes a turn for the worse.”

As the chart below shows, down months in the latter part of 2018 took their toll on pension balances, although they were able to recover through 2019 to finish above their starting value by the end of August 2019.

Pension balance over 12 months to end August 2019*

Pension balance over 12 months to end August 2019
Source: SuperRatings
*Assumes a starting balance of $250,000 at the end of August 2018 and annual 5% drawdown applied monthly.

Comparing balanced and capital stable option performance shows that the balanced option suffered a greater drop but was able to bounce back relatively quickly. A starting balance of $250,000 fell to $232,951 over the four months to December 2018, before recovering to $252,091 at the end of August 2019.

In contrast, the capital stable option was able to better withstand the market fall, with a starting balance of $250,000 dropping to only $241,746 in December before rising back to $252,201.

While both performed similarly over the full 12-month period, a member retiring at December 2018 could have been over $8,500 worse off if they were in a balanced option compared to someone in a capital stable option. While a capital stable option is not expected to perform as well over longer periods, it will provide a smoother ride and may be an appropriate choice for those nearing retirement.

“Super fund returns have generally held up well under challenging conditions, but there’s no doubt this has been a challenging year for those entering retirement,” said Mr Rappell.

“Under these market conditions, timing plays a bigger role in determining your retirement outcome. At the same time interest rates are at record lows and moving lower, so the income generated for retirees and savers is less, particularly if someone is relying on interest from a bank account. In the current low rate and low return environment, it’s harder for retirees to generate capital growth and income.”

Leading research house and managed account provider Lonsec will work with financial advisers seeking to transition from conflicted advice models and introduce a greater degree of independence in their investment decisions.

Lonsec is offering to acquire in-house managed portfolios from advice licensees to enable them to take advantage of best practice governance principles and Lonsec’s experienced team of portfolio construction experts.

With a shift currently taking place in the advice industry in the wake of the Royal Commission into Financial Services, Lonsec said advisers are acutely aware of the need to present a professional, conflict-free advice environment for their clients.

“Advice models have come under a great deal of scrutiny by the Royal Commission as well as the regulators and the community,” said Lonsec CEO Charlie Haynes.

“The Royal Commission may have stopped short of a ban on vertically integrated or conflicted financial advice, but advisers know they need to start moving quickly in this direction to meet community expectations.”

While it is becoming increasingly unpalatable for licensees or advisers to charge portfolio management fees for in-house managed accounts, advisers are also cognisant of regulatory developments.

An empowered ASIC is investigating how platform providers ensure the integrity of managed accounts constructed by advice licensees who might lack the expertise or resources to act as specialist investment managers.

For many advisers, the question is how best to manage conflicts, either by outsourcing the portfolio construction process or introducing a greater degree of independence in their investment decisions.

Lonsec is proposing to acquire the investment management rights from existing managed account providers, enabling them to focus on the provision of advice without conflict.

Licensees have the flexibility to retain their existing branding, investment mandate and platform, or transition to Lonsec’s own professionally managed portfolios incorporating best ideas and insights from Australia’s leading investment product research house.

“An outsourced managed account solution is becoming increasingly popular, not just in order to reduce conflicts but to allow advisers to focus on their clients’ needs and aspirations while leaving the investment process to specialised portfolio managers,” said Mr Haynes.

With Australia’s economic expansion under threat, house prices falling, and a wave of people set to retire over the next decade, financial advisers are under pressure to provide advice and solutions that can withstand Australia’s future retirement challenges.

Lonsec’s Retire program addresses the growing need for the financial services industry to work together to come up with those solutions and strategies.

Lonsec has been running its successful Retire program for more than five years, and it continues to go from strength to strength. The schedule of content and events planned for the next 12 months is the largest yet, with nine Retire Partners now on board to deliver in-depth retirement insights, including:                          

Alliance Bernstein Fidelity      Legg Mason
Allianz Retire+  Invesco  Pendal
Challenger Investors Mutual  Talaria

Lonsec’s Retire Partners will be providing a wealth of content to help advisers understand and deal with a range of issues faced by advisers and their clients.

The program will really kick off on May 7th with the major Lonsec Symposium event at the Westin, Sydney. With more than 600 advisers and wealth managers already registered, along with an impressive line-up of high-profile speakers and industry leaders, this is a must-attend event for all retirement professionals.

Important information: Any express or implied rating or advice is limited to general advice, it doesn’t consider any personal needs, goals or objectives.  Before making any decision about financial products, consider whether it is personally appropriate for you in light of your personal circumstances. Obtain and consider the Product Disclosure Statement for each financial product and seek professional personal advice before making any decisions regarding a financial product.