The Productivity Commission’s final report on Competition and Efficiency in the Superannuation System, which was released on 10 January, provides a great deal of evidence on what type of super funds deliver higher returns, as follows.
Retail v Large Industry Funds 2.5% higher returns to Large Industry Funds on average
The argument in favour of large, well governed industry super funds, such as: AustralianSuper, Hesta, HostPlus, UniSuper, Rest, SunSuper and others is simple: on average they have much lower fees and much higher returns than retail super funds (which include the funds of AMP, MLC, Colonial First State, etc). The difference is about 2.5% per year, on average, after fees and taxes.
The lower fees arise from two factors: industry funds don’t have shareholders who need a return on capital, and they don’t spend a lot of money on distribution (marketing and incentives to financial advisors).
The higher returns also have two drivers. The first is industry funds’ higher allocation of investment to illiquid asset classes, such as infrastructure and private equity. By definition illiquid assets cannot be easily liquidated (sold and turned into cash). Investors demand higher returns for holding illiquid assets and so those assets deliver higher returns over time.
Large industry funds can hold a higher proportion of illiquid assets because their members are less inclined (than the members of retail funds) to either withdraw their funds or move it to cash in a financial crisis. Moreover, the constant flow of new money into large industry funds can meet withdrawals in a crisis without the need to sell assets.
The second reason for higher performance is that large industry funds, for the most part, use outside managers and are therefore able to access the full range of quality global asset managers at a comparatively low price.
Low balance SMSFs v Large Industry Funds 1% higher return to large industry funds on average
About 360,000 of Australia’s 600,000 self managed superannuation funds (SMSFs) have net assets of less than $1 million. Because there are significant fixed costs to running an SMSF the after fee returns of SMSFs are lower for smaller funds. The Productivity Commission reports that SMSFs with net assets of less than $1 million have lower returns, after tax and after fees, than large industry super funds.
There are circumstances where SMSF’s with balances of significantly less than $1 million make sense; including, SMSFs that own the commercial property used in the investor’s business; SMSFs of investors who highly value having complete control of their investments; and SMSFs that are growing quickly towards a higher balance.
But that still leaves 300,000 or more SMSFs that should never have been established. Many of those SMSFs were created on the advice of accountants who were more concerned with the fees to be earned from establishing and then administering SMSFs than the welfare of their clients. In general, the accounting profession has a well-earned reputation for expertise and probity, but the creation of vast numbers of unnecessary SMSFs is a very major blot on that record.
Small industry funds v Large Industry Funds 1% higher return to large industry funds on average
Large industry funds (more than $30 billion of funds under management) have lower fees and earn significantly higher returns for their members, on average, than small industry funds (less than $3 billion) because size matters and the flow of new money matters. Bigger funds can amortise fixed costs over more members. Moreover, they have bigger and better internal investment teams to select external managers and negotiate low fees, as well as managing some money internally.
The flow of money issue is that most small funds are growing very slowly, and some are shrinking. Industry funds with higher flows of new money can hold a higher proportion of illiquid assets, which delivers higher returns over time (as explained above).
Importance of switching funds
Is switching super fund really that important? For an investor who pays 10% of their income into their superannuation over 40 years of employment, a 2.5% per annum improvement in return will yield a superannuation balance at retirement that is about 60% higher, under reasonable assumptions about asset returns, taxes and wage growth.
I am not suggesting that every investor should be considering a large industry fund. Apart from the well-conceived SMSFs mentioned above, there are government and corporate funds that are very beneficial to members. Some State Government super funds are highly advantageous to members in part because of their exemption from Federal Government regulations. Likewise, some large corporate funds have been generously sponsored by the corporation.
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