Super funds are on track to finish 2019 with the strongest returns in years, defying fears of a market fade in the final quarter. While market conditions have been challenging, investors have not yet succumbed to the negative economic headlines, which has been good news for super funds.

If momentum holds up through the rest of the year, members in the median balanced option will be looking at an annual return of around 15.0% for 2019 – a result not seen since 2013.

According to leading research house SuperRatings, funds have done a good job of managing uncertainty, which has only been exacerbated by global risks and challenging economic conditions at home. But while consumers are feeling the pinch, their super is holding up well.

A rebounding share market saw the ASX 200 Index return 3.3% in November, putting Australian shares on track to deliver a return of around 26.0% for 2019, which would be the highest investors have seen since 2009. This is despite weakness from the major Financials sector, which slipped 2.0% over the month as the major banks were marked down due to the lower interest rate outlook, while Westpac (-13.1%) was the latest to be hit with negative headlines.

Looking at November’s results, the median balanced option returned an estimated 2.0% over the month, with Australian shares contributing 0.6% and international shares 1.0%, bringing the year-to-date return to 14.8%. The median growth option delivered an estimated 2.3% over the month, bringing the year-to-date return to 17.2%.

Over the past five years, the median balanced option has returned an estimated 7.9% p.a., compared to 8.7% p.a. for growth and 4.9% p.a. for capital stable (see table below).

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

YTD 1 yr 3 yrs 5 yrs 7 yrs 10 yrs
SR50 Growth (77-90) Index 17.2% 15.2% 10.5% 8.7% 10.4% 8.6%
SR50 Balanced (60-76) Index 14.8% 13.4% 9.3% 7.9% 9.3% 8.0%
SR50 Capital Stable (20-40) Index 8.3% 8.5% 5.5% 4.9% 5.4% 5.6%

Source: SuperRatings

Pensions products have similarly performed well over the course of 2019, with the median balanced pension option returning an estimated 16.3% year-to-date to the end of November, compared to 19.6% for growth and 9.6% for capital stable.

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

YTD 1 yr 3 yrs 5 yrs 7 yrs 10 yrs
SRP50 Growth (77-90) Index 19.6% 17.1% 11.5% 9.9% 11.7% 9.6%
SRP50 Balanced (60-76) Index 16.3% 14.9% 10.0% 8.5% 10.2% 8.8%
SRP50 Capital Stable (20-40) Index 9.6% 9.4% 6.3% 5.7% 6.2% 6.4%

Source: SuperRatings

“We may not have seen the ramp up in shares before Christmas that some were hoping for, but it’s still safe to say that 2019 has been a highly successful year for super funds and their members,” said SuperRatings Executive Director Kirby Rappell.

“It’s been a nervous year for investors, so it’s great to see that super can deliver some much-needed stability and solid returns during this period. There might not be a lot of positive economic news at the moment, but at least super is one story we can all draw some hope from.”

“Since the Royal Commission’s final report at the start of the year, super funds have fought hard to restore members’ trust in the system. We’ve seen good funds responding proactively to the changing regulatory landscape, which has been pleasing. We expect to see an increase in fund mergers in 2020, but it’s important that regulatory responses don’t move us towards a one-size-fits-all approach, which could be detrimental to member outcomes.”

Members must look beyond raw returns

Everyone agrees that funds that aren’t delivering for members have no place in the super system. However, focusing purely on returns as a measure of a fund’s success ignores a range of factors, not least of which is the level of risk involved in generating that return.

As the chart below shows, there is a significant dispersion of risk and return outcomes among different funds. Looking at how balanced options compare over the past five years, there are some producing higher returns than the median option, but many are producing these higher returns by taking on a higher level of risk (measured as the standard deviation of returns).

Risk and return comparison – Balanced (5 years to 30 November 2019)

Risk and return quadrant - Balanced

Source: SuperRatings

When assessing investment performance over time, the top-left quadrant (higher return for lower risk) is what members should generally aim for. Similarly, the bottom-right quadrant (lower return for higher risk) represents the laggard funds. Over any given time period, there will always be funds that outperform and those that underperform.

Looking at past performance can be useful when picking the right fund, but it shouldn’t be the sole criteria. For one thing, past performance is no guarantee of future performance, but there are many factors members should take into account when assessing a super fund, including insurance, governance, member services, and of course fees.

Markets continued their upward trajectory in November. When you look at the returns across key asset classes over the last 12 months most asset classes have generated double digit returns. Growth assets such as equities and listed real assets generated over 20% for the year ending 30 November, while bonds generated high single digit to double digit returns. This has been a great outcome for investors and certainly well above Lonsec’s long-term expected returns for asset classes.

Part of what has fuelled these high returns, post markets getting the wobbles after the US yield curve inverted in August, can be attributed to markets pricing in the avoidance of a recession and the expectations of a potential recovery in growth. We have witnessed such ‘mini-cycles’ in the past, in 2013 and 2016, however what is different this time is that EPS growth is more muted and other factors which contributed to previous mini-cycles, such as the US or Chinese fiscal stimulus, are less likely to have an impact.

So what does this mean for markets? We think markets may experience a short-term upswing as the ‘mini-cycle’ plays out. We have therefore slightly adjusted our dynamic asset allocation tilts deploying some of the excess cash in our portfolios towards Australian equities. Our overall asset allocation continues to have a defensive skew with the objective of diversifying the portfolios by asset type and investment strategy. This positioning reflects our broader view that asset prices are stretched and that while some economic indicators have stabilised, we believe we are closer to the end of the cycle.

Thankfully my kids have moved on from their ‘Frozen’ phase and the tunes of ‘Let it go’ are well and truly buried away in the back of the DVD cabinet. As professional investors, one of the biggest challenges we face is when to ‘let it go’. When we make an investment into a stock or managed fund the investment rationale is clear, attractive valuations, positive earnings growth, solid investment team, appropriate investment style. However, what happens when our investments don’t follow the course we anticipated and perform poorly? An even more difficult decision is when to let go of a ‘winner’?

Behavioural factors play a big role in terms of how people react to events and the subsequent decisions they make. The belief that things will turnaround, the comfort of the pack (we all go down together), ‘falling in love’ with an investment. Such emotions impact all of us even the most experienced investor. The main line of defense to minimise the impact of behavioural factors in a decision making process is to always point back to your investment philosophy and the underlying process which underpins that philosophy. If your overall philosophy is one of generating returns with lower downside risk than the market do the underlying investment align to this philosophy? have they provided downside protection? if not, why? (are there cyclical reason for this or is there something structural impact the return profile). If an investment has provided this type of return profile what have been the factors contributing to this e.g. certain sector or country exposures, and do you expect these factors to work in the future? If we use a managed fund as an example it is important to look out for any changes to how the manager is managing money which may be reflected in a change in the risk and return profile of a fund. Is there a change in how the manager positions their investment approach to what they communicated a few years ago?

The main forum for our manager and stock decisions for our managed portfolio are our Manager and Security Selection Investment Committees.  The committees are made up of senior members of our Research and Investment Consulting teams, our CIO as well as our external experts. Decisions to ‘let an investment go’ are made via the committee process. Investment recommendations are supported by qualitative and quantitative analysis. If we use managed funds for example this would include meeting with the manager (outside of the formal annual review process) focusing in on the issues at hand and targeted quantitative analysis which may provide a clue as to where the problem rests, an example being where a manager has taken stock-specific risk which is uncharacteristic of the manager.

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.