For consumers, 2019 was a year best forgotten as negative economic news created an almost perpetual drag on sentiment and global uncertainty resulted in repeated bouts of volatility. But for investors, including Australia’s 15 million super fund members, it was a year that saw a sizeable accumulation of wealth, driven by share market gains as well as some savvy investment decisions by the top-ranking funds.

Even with the high expectations set during a year that saw share markets rally ever higher, several super funds were able to translate this favourable environment into exceptional gains for members.

Topping the leader board in 2019 was UniSuper, whose balanced option delivered a return of 18.4% over the year and is among the top performers over 10 years with a return of 8.9% per annum. Over one year, UniSuper was followed by AustralianSuper – Australia’s largest fund – which returned 17.0% in 2019 and 9.0% over 10 years. However, it’s Hostplus that remains in first place over 10 years with an annual return of 9.2%.

Top 10 balanced options (return over 1 year)

*Interim return
Source: SuperRatings

Top 25 balanced options (return over 10 years)

*Interim return
Source: SuperRatings

UniSuper came out on top in a crowded field, in which the top 10 funds delivered an average return of 16.3%. It was a tight race over longer time periods, and while markets have certainly provided a tailwind, there’s no doubt that skilful management plays a role in squeezing out additional returns.

While returns may appear narrowly spread at the top, this hides some significant differences in asset allocation and investment strategies pursued by different funds. What was interesting to see was the diversity of approaches that funds take, even at the top of the leader board. While most funds have benefited from strong equity markets, the nuances among the top performers are where there has been strong value added for members.

In the case of UniSuper, the fund continues to pursue an active management strategy with exposures predominantly to Australian and International Equities, as well as significant cash and fixed interest exposures. Allocations to illiquid assets such as infrastructure and private equity are not a key component of their strategy.

Meanwhile, Hostplus has significant allocations to illiquid assets, with these being a key driver of its performance outcomes for Property, Infrastructure and Private Equity assets. AustralianSuper has also benefited from material unlisted asset exposures, as well as fee savings generated from its in-house investment structure.

Top pension funds

One of the key challenges super funds face is the current low-yield environment, which is making it harder for funds to generate income for members. This challenge is likely to be felt more acutely by those in the post-retirement phase, who rely on the income generated by their pension product to fund living expenses.

In this environment, picking the right pension fund and option can be critical. The below chart shows how capital stable pension options (20–40% growth assets) stack up over 10 years, and while there is some dispersion in the results, every option in the top 25 by performance exceeded the typical CPI plus 3.0% target. AustralianSuper’s Stable option is the best performer, returning 7.6% p.a. over ten years, followed closely by TelstraSuper’s Conservative option and Hostplus’s Capital Stable option.

Top 25 capital stable pension options (return over 10 years)

Source: SuperRatings

Understanding risk is critical for consumers

Most consumers can’t define risk, but they know it when they experience it. For superannuation members, risk can mean the likelihood of running out of money in retirement, or not having enough cash to pay for holidays, car repairs, or an inheritance for their kids.

For young members starting out in the workforce, short-term market falls might not matter too much because their investment horizon is relatively long. But for members nearing retirement, the timing of market ups and downs can have a significant effect on the wealth they have available in the drawdown phase.

For a young worker with a relatively low super balance, being exposed to riskier assets is less of a problem – in fact, it can help them accumulate wealth over their working life. However, for members approaching retirement (aged 50 and over), an unexpected pullback in the market can mean the difference between living comfortably and having to cut back in order to get by.

For this reason, it’s important to consider not only the return that a fund delivers but also the level of risk it takes on to achieve that return. In this context, risk means the degree of variability in returns over time. Growth assets like shares may return more on average than traditionally defensive assets like fixed income, but the range of return outcomes in a given period is greater.

The table below shows the top 25 funds ranked according to their risk-adjusted return, which measures how much members are being rewarded for taking on the ups and downs.

Top 25 balanced options based on risk and return

Fund option name 7 year return (% p.a.) Rank
QSuper – Balanced 9.1 1
CareSuper – Balanced 9.8 2
Cbus – Growth (Cbus MySuper) 10.3 3
Hostplus – Balanced 10.5 4
BUSSQ Premium Choice – Balanced Growth 9.6 5
Sunsuper for Life – Balanced 10.0 6
Catholic Super – Balanced (MySuper) 9.4 7
HESTA – Core Pool 9.6 8
CSC PSSap – MySuper Balanced 9.0 9
MTAA Super – My AutoSuper 9.5 10
Media Super – Balanced 9.4 11
Intrust Core Super – MySuper 9.8 12
AustralianSuper – Balanced 10.5 13
Mercy Super – MySuper Balanced 10.0 14
Rest – Core Strategy 9.0 15
First State Super – Growth 9.7 16
QANTAS Super Gateway – Growth 8.3 17
TWUSUPER – Balanced 8.8 18
Energy Super – Balanced 9.3 19
Local Government Super Accum – Balanced Growth 9.0 20
AMIST Super – Balanced 8.9 21
VicSuper FutureSaver – Growth (MySuper) Option 9.8 22
Club Plus Super – MySuper 8.9 23
NGS Super – Diversified (MySuper) 8.9 24
LGIAsuper Accum – Diversified Growth* 8.9 25

Risk/return ranking determined by Sharpe Ratio
*Interim return
Source: SuperRatings

QSuper’s return of 9.1% p.a. over the past seven years is slightly below the average of 9.7% across the top 10 ranking funds, but it has the best return to risk ratio of its peers, meaning it delivered the best return given the level of risk involved. Funds such as CareSuper, Cbus and Hostplus were able to deliver higher returns, but for a slightly higher level of risk.

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.

Many behavioural studies have shown there are several traits and biases that can impede us from making reasonable decisions about everything from what to eat to how to invest. Understanding these biases and considering whether they may be negatively impacting decisions can be beneficial when implementing long-term investment plans. These studies show, in general, people have asymmetric risk profiles and fear losses more than the expectation of gains by at least a 2:1 margin[1]. Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, this ratio increases substantially as people approach retirement.

American psychologist and economist, Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel Prize for his work challenging the prevailing assumption of human rationality in modern economic theory has stated, ‘If you have an individual whose objective is to maximise wealth at a certain future point in time, then loss aversion is very bad because loss aversion will cause that individual to miss out on many opportunities.’

This loss avoidance trait stands in contrast to a basic investment principal, that investors need to accept higher risk (and higher potential for near-term losses) in order to achieve higher returns over the long term, particularly during market sell-offs. When faced with losses, rational decision-making can become impaired by the emotional desire to avoid more losses.

There are a wide range of cognitive biases that can impact retirement plans, some are listed below:

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is the natural human tendency to seek information that confirms an existing point of view or hypothesis. This can lead to overconfidence if investors keep seeing data that appears to confirm the decisions they have made. This overconfidence can result in a false sense that nothing is likely to go wrong, increasing the risk of being blindsided when something does go wrong.

Information bias

Information bias is the tendency to evaluate information even when it is useless in understanding a problem or issue. Investors are exposed to an array of information daily, and it is difficult to filter through this and focus on the relevant information. In general, investors would make superior investment decisions if they ignored daily share price movements and focused on prices compared to the medium-term prospects for the investments. By ignoring daily share price commentary, investors would overcome a dangerous source of information bias in the investment decision making process.

Loss aversion bias

Loss aversion is the tendency for people to strongly prefer avoiding losses than obtaining gains. The loss aversion effect can lead to poor and irrational investment decisions, where investors refuse to sell loss-making investments in the hope of making their money back. Investors fixated on loss aversion can miss investment opportunities by failing to properly consider the opportunity cost of their investments.

Anchoring bias

Anchoring bias is the tendency to rely too heavily on, or anchor to, a past reference or one piece of information when making an investment decision. For example, if you were asked to forecast a stock’s price in three months’ time, many would start by looking at the price today and then make certain assumptions to arrive at a future price. That’s a form of anchoring bias – starting with a price today and building a sense of value based on that anchor.

How do we try and overcome the biases when building retirement portfolios?

The objective based nature of Lonsec’s Retirement portfolios means there is a greater focus on absolute rather than relative performance. Additionally, the portfolios have been constructed to manage risks, including:

  • Market and sequencing risk
  • Inflation risk
  • Longevity risk

Some investment strategies that can assist in controlling for these risks include:

Variable beta strategies can vary equity market exposure by allocating to cash in periods where equity market opportunities are perceived to be limited due to expensive valuations, or where market downside risk is considered high.

Long / Short – Active Extension (also known as 130/30 funds) utilise a broad range of strategies including short selling and adjusting the net equity position for performance enhancement, risk management and hedging purposes.

Multi-asset real return funds invest in a wide range of asset classes, with the managers having considerable flexibility in the type and percentage of asset classes allocated to. Typically, these funds will seek to limit downside risk, while also targeting a real return i.e. a CPI + objective.

Real assets such as property and infrastructure, commodities and inflation linked bonds can assist in managing against inflation risk.

When constructing the Retirement portfolios, Lonsec takes a building block approach by assigning a role for each fund – yield generation, capital growth and risk control.

The yield component of the portfolios generate yield, or a certain level of income from investments that have differing risk return characteristics. The capital growth component is designed to generate long term capital growth, with limited focus on income, and is more suited to early retirees. The risk control component is critical for retirement portfolios and is designed to reduce some of the market risks in the yield and capital growth components. It is important to note that the risk control part of the portfolios will not eliminate these risks but aims to mitigate them. Asset allocation and diversification are also important ingredients in managing the overall volatility of the portfolios.

The Retirement portfolios can assist in managing the risks that impact retirees, however it is important to note that none of these strategies provide a guaranteed outcome. The range of products that offer certainty of income or capital protection such as annuities has increased in recent years, in recognition of Australia’s aging demographics and demand for greater certainty in retirement. Separate guidance on the use of annuities is available from Lonsec.


[1] Gachter, Johnson, Herrmann (2010). Individual – level loss aversion in riskless and risky choices. Columbia Business School

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.