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.

Conveying the importance of insurance to members is one of the biggest challenges that super funds face. Insurance is often seen as a cost rather than a benefit, especially for younger members, meaning funds need to be in a position to clearly communicate the advantages for individuals and for the system as a whole.

The government’s Protecting Your Super (PYS) package came into effect from 1 July this year and aims to reduce the erosion of account balances through unnecessary fees and costs. Part of the legislation involves the cancellation of insurance for members whose account has been inactive for 16 months or more. Based on early analysis conducted by SuperRatings, it’s clear that the PYS changes will have a significant impact across the industry. For the median fund, around 17% of insured members are expected to lose cover. For the quartile of funds most affected by the changes, this figure rises to over 23% (see table below).

What percentage of insured members have lost cover?
Quartile least impacted 13.7%
Median 17.2%
Quartile most impacted 23.4%

Based on an early analysis of member behaviour, it’s clear that members are more engaged with their insurance than was widely anticipated by the industry. According to SuperRatings, the median expected opt-in rate is around 20%. For a quarter of the industry, almost a third of members are expected to opt in, which is significantly higher than funds’ initial expectations. This suggests that inactive members are perhaps not as disengaged as commonly thought (see table below).

Expected Opt-in Rates
Quartile least impacted 32.9%
Median 20.0%
Quartile most impacted 13.4%

These results highlight the importance of fund communication in helping to convey the benefits of insurance and other member services. A member-centric approach to reinstating cover for members that opt in late is beneficial, with funds typically offering a 60 to 90-day reinstatement period. The provision of advice and insurance calculators will assist members in deciding whether to opt in and whether their level of cover is appropriate.

A variety of strategies have been used by funds over the last year to engage with this cohort of members. While traditional forms of member communications such as direct mail have been used in the past, funds have experienced success with email, outbound calling, SMS and digital marketing campaigns. There has also been significant coverage of these changes in the media, which has led to increased awareness and activity of members wishing to ensure they have the appropriate level of insurance coverage. But what’s clear is that, when presented with a clearly communicated choice, members are likely to engage and take action.

This is the start of the process, and undoubtedly it will be an evolving area that will pose different challenges for funds. A limited number of funds have passed on insurance premium increases, with a number indicating that their insurer has decided to wait and see what the overall impact of PYS and other changes such as the Putting Members’ Interests First legislation will be, and these funds may implement changes in the future. SuperRatings will continue to monitor the impact, but it’s anticipated that there will be upward pressure on insurance premiums as funds and insurers digest the changes.

Funds are operating in a different environment where there are conflicts between regulatory settings and potential claims that will emanate where insurance has been ceased for members. How funds are going to strike an appropriate balance when they’re in a somewhat invidious position will be one of the key themes that SuperRatings tracks in coming months.

This article is based on information from the upcoming Benchmark Report released annually by SuperRatings. The Benchmark Report is based on the most in-depth survey of Australia’s superannuation market, covering investment performance, fees, governance, member servicing, and insurance.

In light of the new KiwiSaver contribution rate changes, which came into effect on 1 April 2019, SuperRatings utilised their Net Benefit model to quantify the actual impact on a member’s KiwiSaver balance.

The Taxation (Annual Rates for 2018-19, Modernising Tax Administration, and Remedial Matters) Bill introduced contribution rates of 6% and 10%, in addition to the 3%, 4% and 8% rates previously offered, providing members with greater flexibility and allowing more tailored financial plans. The 6% rate also bridges the gap for members currently contributing the minimum who don’t have the means of contributing 8%.

SuperRatings analysed the difference in outcomes using their Net Benefit methodology, which aims to show the dollar amount credited to a member’s account. SuperRatings’ Net Benefit methodology models investment returns achieved by each scheme over a seven-year period, as well as the fees charged. The analysis uses a scenario of a member that has a salary of $50,000 and a starting balance of $20,000 and a tax rate of 17.5%.

SuperRatings’ analysis shown in the chart below, indicates that a member contributing 3% into the median Conservative Fund would have generated a balance of $38,261 over the 7 years to 30 June 2018, whereas a member contributing 6% would have a balance of $49,272, a difference of over $11,000.


Source: SuperRatings

Evidently, additional contributions coupled with the benefit of compounding can have a significant impact on members’ account balances over the long term. In addition to supporting members to select an appropriate contribution rate, helping members to choose a suitable fund type continues to be an important determinant of member outcomes.

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.