The Government is getting most things right. But no one is perfect in the face of a crisis.

For some of the most vulnerable people in society the Government’s message is effectively saying, “Use your own super to tide yourselves over and by the way, you’ll need to take it out at a massive loss, which you can never recoup.” As Chairman of SuperRatings, Jeff Bresnahan says, “There must be a better way.”

Under the current proposal, tens of billions of dollars of assets could need to be dumped into declining markets, meaning that some Australians seeking their $10,000 “tax free” super payment in mid-April, could inadvertently get as little as 70 cents in the dollar against what they would have got just two months ago.

Nearly all of the problems will arise because the eligibility criteria to access your super are way too generous. As Bresnahan says: “This shotgun approach has the potential to come back and bite the Government, hard. The focus absolutely needs to be on those who truly do need access to cash, and fast. Quite simply, those displaced from their jobs due to this horrific COVID-19 virus. In reality, those in hardship. This shouldn’t be a self-assessment process for all Australians”.

SuperRatings also encourages the Government to rethink just how they can get that money to those in need, whilst protecting their retirement nest eggs. Any of the following three options, or preferably a combination thereof, has the potential to protect our most vulnerable as well as retaining their superannuation balances:

  1. Allow funds to take a loan out from the RBA, to meet all claims. This loan would be secured against members’ benefits and repayable after say 5 years. This would then allow members to recoup lost investment earnings. The Government is protected, the member gets emergency funding, and the funds don’t have to dump assets into a declining market.
  2. A variation on (1) but with the ATO handling all claims, making all payments and retaining the loan register. This is a cleaner payment portal and still protects the Government, the member and the fund.
  3. Protect funds against having to sell into declining markets by ensuring that payments are only made to those in genuine hardship (e.g. those who have registered as unemployed, have been stood down, etc. and remain so after 4 weeks). At present, on a self-assessment basis, virtually all Australians, employed or not, could potentially make a claim.

SuperRatings believes the above provides a win/win scenario versus the upcoming lose/lose that Australia’s most vulnerable and those in, or near, retirement are going to cop. By winding back the eligibility criteria, the level of claims will be lower and hence more manageable. This in turn creates more flexibility for the Government on how to best work with the funds to ensure those in need receive assistance as quickly as possible.

Opening the floodgates to allow virtually anyone and everyone to drag up to $20,000 out of their super fund, with the current market volatility, is not the answer. All this after bipartisan governments have spent over 27 years – and half a working lifetime –getting Australians’ retirement savings into shape. As Bresnahan says “These are extraordinary times, but let’s make sure aid reaches those who need it, not everyone who asks”.

Compounding the issue is the loss of future benefits. $20,000 out of a 35 years old’s super account over the next twelve months foregoes around $80,000 in future benefits. As the graph shows, this affects everyone who withdraws money from super.

Impact of super withdrawals on future balances

Assumptions: based on ASIC’s MoneySmart calculator using a Growth option with an assumed investment return of 5.0% before fees and taxes on earnings.

The current potential for rorting the system is significant. If, as a result of unnecessary claiming, some funds are forced to consider freezing withdrawals to protect their remaining members, what will the Government do then? This is not new. Every financial crisis has resulted in a small number of investment funds being frozen, although this might be a first for super funds.

Bresnahan concluded: “The Government has less than three weeks to tweak what is a valid and morally sound strategy to protect, as best they can, the financial stability of those who have been displaced due to COVID-19 consequences. The idea is sound – the execution not the greatest.”

So, with some quick and effective decisions, SuperRatings believes the Government can protect those in most need, by providing emergency funding; whilst simultaneously retaining many Australians’ super for their retirement; and ultimately maintaining the integrity and confidence of the superannuation system overall

Sadly, the title of our Symposium now seems all too prophetic.

Following the advice of the Australian government and health authorities, we’ve decided that the best option is to cancel the event.

Over 900 people were already registered to attend, but we all need to help ‘flatten the curve’ and prevent the spread as much as we can.

At this stage we’re not planning to re-schedule, but we’re working to make the content available to everyone who registered. We’ll provide further information on how to access these materials as it becomes available.

Who knows, we may all have plenty of time at home to watch and read!

We’d like to thank our event sponsors, AllianceBernstein, Fidante, Fidelity, Investors Mutual, Legg Mason, Pendal Group, Schroders and Talaria, and we look forward to continuing to work with them to keep you informed.

Feel free to put the Lonsec Symposium 2021 (Thursday 29th April 2021) in your diaries, and we look forward to seeing you all there, if not before.

According to estimates from leading research house SuperRatings, super funds had a positive start to 2020, with the median balanced option returning 1.9% in January, driven predominately by gains from Australian and International shares.

The start of February was a different story as markets were affected by the outbreak of the Coronavirus, which led to a selloff in global share markets as investors sought out safe-haven assets.

Asian equity markets have borne the brunt of the initial impact, but the effects are likely to be felt across global markets, noting that previous outbreaks over the last two decades have resulted in short–term equity market corrections within a range of 5–15%.

As super funds face the new normal of lower returns and yields, managing volatility is becoming increasingly necessary. However, despite the current swings in the market, SuperRatings said funds remained focused on long-term member outcomes.

“The funds we’ve spoken to are not responding to the current market situation with knee-jerk reactions,” said SuperRatings Executive Director Kirby Rappell.

“They’re watching developments closely, but so far market volatility has been in line with similar risk events experienced in recent years. Fund investment strategies are generally well placed to manage these types of movements.”

Looking back at previous epidemics, such as the Ebola outbreak in 2018 or the SARS epidemic back in 2003, Australian super funds have proved relatively resilient to short-term market movements. Quarterly returns during each episode have ranged between -2.1% and +4.3%, with markets largely unfazed over longer periods.

Outbreaks and SR50 Balanced Index performance


Source: SuperRatings, Financial Express

Whether the effect of the Coronavirus has a more lasting impact on markets remains to be seen, but funds are unlikely to implement any dramatic changes to their investment strategies without further evidence that the virus will deal more prolonged damage to the global economy.

Con Michalakis, Chief Investment Officer at StateWide Super, said that while there would undoubtedly be some economic fallout, the fund remains focused on long-term member outcomes. “This is a classic case of a black swan, and like all black swans the markets struggle with uncertainty,” said Mr Michalakis.

“What we can be sure about is that the economy in China and Australia will be slower due to the restrictions in place in the first quarter of 2020. However, from a long-term perspective, diversification and strategy based on member age and risk tolerance is more important.”

Suzanne Branton, Chief Investment Officer at CareSuper, said the fund’s investment strategies are designed to provide downside protection during bouts of market turmoil.

“When new influences on the investment outlook emerge, it’s important to analyse and monitor these closely,” said Ms Branton.

“There could be a short-term impact that provides investment opportunities or avenues to adjust positioning. However, there are reasons to expect a more short-term rather than extended large-scale market impact. Our investment approach is structured to deliver downside protection so our investment program resilience to short-term volatility is high.”

Super funds post solid returns in January as share markets powered into 2020

Super funds started the year in positive territory as momentum in local and international share markets carried through into the new year. This was quickly reversed following the outbreak of the Coronavirus and the ensuing drawdown in markets, but over longer periods super fund returns are holding up remarkably well.

Over 12 months to the end of January, the median balanced option returned an estimated 13.8%, while the median growth option return was estimated at an impressive 16.2%. Returns over the past seven years are estimated at 8.8% and 9.8% respectively.

Estimated accumulation returns (% p.a. to end of January 2020)

  1 yr 3 yrs 5 yrs 7 yrs 10 yrs
SR50 Growth (77-90) Index 16.2% 10.2% 8.2% 9.8% 8.8%
SR50 Balanced (60-76) Index 13.8% 9.1% 7.7% 8.8% 8.2%
SR50 Capital Stable (20-40) Index 7.7% 5.3% 4.6% 5.3% 5.6%

Source: SuperRatings

Pensions have delivered even higher returns than accumulation products, with the median balanced pension option returning an estimated 15.4% over the 12 months to the end of January, while the median growth pension option had an estimated return of 18.0%. Over the past seven years each have returned 9.6% and 10.8% respectively.

Estimated pension returns (% p.a. to end of January 2020)

  1 yr 3 yrs 5 yrs 7 yrs 10 yrs
SRP50 Growth (77-90) Index 18.0% 11.4% 9.3% 10.8% 9.7%
SRP50 Balanced (60-76) Index 15.4% 9.8% 8.1% 9.6% 9.0%
SRP50 Capital Stable (20-40) Index 8.9% 6.2% 5.2% 5.9% 6.3%

Source: SuperRatings

“We expect to see volatility appear more frequently over the course of 2020, but overall our outlook for super funds is positive,” said Mr Rappell.

“Long-term returns will continue to hold up despite the challenging return environment we find ourselves in at present. Members should look forward to a solid 2020, but expect some bumpiness along the way.”

The outbreak of the coronavirus in over 28 countries has sent shockwaves through global financial markets over the past fortnight with increasing levels of uncertainty and misinformation evident across a number of regions. While there are many unknowns regarding this outbreak, there is likely to be continued disruption to economic activity ahead, which is unlikely to subside until the outbreak is brought under control.

The impact of the coronavirus on equity markets is likely to be multi-faceted with the potential to impact earnings across a numbers of sectors over 2020. While Asian equity markets are likely to take the brunt of the initial impact, the effects are likely to be felt across global markets, noting that previous outbreaks over the last two decades have resulted in short–term equity market corrections within a range of 5-15%.

Implications on the Australian equity market

From an Australian equities perspective, we are likely to see earnings outlook downgrades across a number of sectors, at a time of elevated valuations and a sub-par growth outlook, particularly as we head into the February reporting season. While earnings across the Healthcare, Consumer Staples and Infrastructure sectors should be relatively immune to recent events, based on Lonsec’s initial estimates, 2020 earnings estimates for the Resources (Energy, Iron Ore and Copper), Tourism/Travel and Consumer Discretionary sectors are likely to see significant one-off earnings revisions, capturing the impact of the coronavirus outbreak and the recent bushfires across Australia. However, such downgrades are unlikely to impact the long-term investment thesis for most companies and should be regarded as short-term headwinds, reflecting a series of one-off unfortunate events.

Lonsec’s asset allocation views

From an asset allocation perspective, Lonsec’s multi-asset portfolios remain very well diversified with only a small direct exposure to Chinese equity and bond markets. Consequently, our current focus is on the flow on effects that a sustained slowdown in Chinese growth may have on the domestic growth outlook given our close trading ties. As previously noted, our valuation indicators for Australian equities remain elevated, making them susceptible to a pullback should Chinese authorities’ attempts to stabilise growth fail. We have maintained our slight underweight positions in both global and Australian equities for the time being, however continue to monitor events closely.

While there is a high degree of uncertainty regarding the coronavirus outbreak, Lonsec notes that this event does pose a long “tail risk” for global markets should the outbreak get out of hand. These factors make it a challenging period for investors, where factors other than fundamentals are having a material impact on the trajectory of markets. In such an environment, we believe selective valuation opportunities will present themselves for long-term investors, however ensuring that your portfolio is diversified will be very important in navigating an increasingly volatile market environment.

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.

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</strong 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.

On the back of the 2019 KiwiSaver product ratings, SuperRatings is pleased to provide a list of the top 10 providers on a Net Benefit basis across Conservative, Balanced and Growth funds. The Net Benefit figures have been calculated using investment returns minus fees and taxes for the 7 years to 31 March 2019. This represents the dollar amount credited to a member’s account and is the best approach to assessing the value that a scheme delivers to its members.

We note that the Financial Market Authority’s 2019 KiwiSaver Annual Report indicated a shift in their focus from pure fees towards value for money. SuperRatings welcomes this change and will continue to monitor progress in this area to emphasise the importance of this approach, drawing on our experiences across both the New Zealand and Australian markets.

“Despite a volatile financial year, the median performance for Conservative and Balanced funds improved over the 12 months to 31 March 2019,” said SuperRatings Executive Director Kirby Rappell. “Schemes had to navigate through increased volatility and geopolitical risks, particularly in the final quarter of the 2018 calendar year. Stronger equity markets in the following quarter helped recover losses, though the median 1 year return for Growth funds moderated slightly given the higher allocation to domestic and international shares”.

The median member fee remained at $30, while we observed a slight decrease in the total percentage-based fees for Balanced and Growth funds, though they continue to charge more than the median Conservative fund. “Net Benefit cuts through the issue of having to look at returns and fees separately. Our analysis shows that despite higher fees, Net Benefit outcomes for Growth funds continue to sit above Balanced and Conservative funds”.

Another insight is the relatively narrow range of outcomes being delivered for members investing in Conservative funds. Over 7 years, the difference between the best and worst Net Benefit provider was around $3,500, yet this represents almost 20% of the member’s starting balance. This compares to a difference of over $30,000 in the Australian market, driven by stronger investment earnings and higher contribution rates. “For KiwiSaver members, changing fund type rather than changing provider can have a bigger impact on their retirement savings,” said Rappell. “SuperRatings remains supportive of schemes providing education, advice as well as digital tools to empower members to make an active choice regarding their fund type. Whilst default funds may be appropriate for first home buyers and those nearing retirement, members using KiwiSaver as a long-term savings vehicle should be informed on the options available to them”.

SuperRatings’ Net Benefit methodology models investment returns achieved by each scheme over a seven-year period to 31 March 2019, as well as the fees charged over the period. The analysis uses a scenario of a member that has a salary of $50,000 and a starting balance of $20,000. It then assumes a contribution rate of 3.0% with a contribution tax of 17.5%.

*Net Benefit outcomes are calculated over seven years and assume a contribution rate of 3.00%, contribution tax of 17.50%, salary of $50,000 p.a. and a starting balance of $20,000.
**Russell LifePoints® Conservative Fund.
***Russell LifePoints® Balanced Fund.
****Russell LifePoints® Growth Fund.

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

Veronica Klaus Head of Lonsec Investment Consulting spoke on a panel at the Professional Planner Researcher Forum in Sydney last week.

Veronica discussed the inconsistency and confusion around asset class definitions, which is one of the biggest issues confronting the industry. The way in which assets are defined as growth, defensive, etc. often lacks transparency and ultimately makes it harder for financial advisers to make the right recommendations for their clients.

However, as Veronica explains, the superannuation funds aren’t necessarily the ones to blame for the problem.

 

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.”

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