Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Super: ignore it and miss seeing you're being bled

You know you're getting old when you attend the funeral of the man who hired you four decades earlier. Among all the rough-and-ready types in journalism, Alan Dobbyn, long-lasting news editor of the Herald - in the days when that meant he was really the editor - was a true gentleman.

When, as a chartered accountant, I applied for a job as a cadet journalist, Dobbyn told me he wasn't sure I'd last, but was prepared to give it a go. He didn't know how keen I was to escape the round eternal of the cash book and the journal. At the wake, I learnt from his family his concern was his inability to offer me a wage of more than $100 a week.

Not to worry. He got me a hefty pay rise four months later. And, in any case, being an accountant with an interest in such matters, I joined the Fairfax super scheme in my first week and this has served me more than well.

Just as it never crossed my mind I'd one day attend my boss's funeral, so most people under 50 can't bring themselves to think about superannuation. It is too complicated and too boring. It deals with contingencies so far into the unknowable future that they're inconceivable.

Why do bankers and other purveyors of "financial services" earn stratospheric incomes that chief executives have been quick to copy and medical specialists to envy? To a fair extent because so few people can bring themselves to keep a watchful eye on their super.

How do you get ripped off in a capitalist economy? By not paying enough attention to what the capitalists are doing to you via boring things like superannuation. By ignoring the watchwords of capitalism: caveat emptor - let the buyer beware.

Paul Keating is particularly proud of Labor's introduction of compulsory employee super in the 1990s. John Howard has always had his doubts, partly because of the compulsion, but mainly because it's meant so many unwashed union officials getting a hand in administering the billions that, by rights, should be the exclusive preserve of Liberal-voting business people.

I have no problem with the compulsion. It is an easily justified government intervention to help counter the very market failure we've been discussing: life-cycle myopia. But even if you regard our present arrangements as a great reform, it remains true they're also a great scandal. A remodelled house that's yet to have its tarpaulin replaced by a new roof to stop the rain getting in.

Lately, we've heard much about the way a mainly compulsory saving scheme is accompanied by tax inducements that cost the government about as much as the age pension, but are of little benefit to low-income earners, with most of the lolly going to high-income earners like me.

It's a scandal for the government to be proposing cuts to the age pension because its cost has become "unsustainable", while ignoring the super tax concessions going to the more than well-off.

But another scandal gets far less attention: the way the banks and life insurance companies and innumerable hangers-on are able to quietly overcharge all those mug punters who can't muster any interest in their super.

Think of it: the government compels employers to take 9.5 per cent of their workers' wages and hand this over to the "financial services" industry, then looks the other way while these fat cats rip off the mugs the government has delivered into their hands.

As Jim Minifie explains in his report, Super Savings, for the Grattan Institute, the previous government did do something to improve things, mainly by tightening requirements on the "default" super funds that workers are put into when, as usually happens, they don't exercise their right to nominate a fund.

But this just scrapes the surface of the potential reductions in the administrative and investment management fees imposed on people's accounts. The industry is inefficient because its customers' inattention means competition is inadequate.

To be fair to punters, it's just too hard to understand how super works and how different funds compare, and too time-consuming to complete the forms needed to move money around. Putting that into econospeak​, information and transaction costs are prohibitive, causing the market to fail.

Minifie finds there are too many super accounts - on average, about two per person - and too many super funds, which stops the exploitation of economies of scale. He says the government should encourage fund mergers and make it easier for people to consolidate their accounts.

But most of all, the government should inject more competition by calling tenders for the right to be a default fund, with those funds charging the lowest fees winning.

These reforms could cut the $21 billion in fees paid each year by people with super accounts by up to $6 billion a year. That's a decrease of almost 30 per cent.

Punters assume that, apart from the size of your wage, how much super you retire with depends on how well your investments do. Often, however, how much you're charged in fees can make a bigger difference.

Few realise they're paying about $1000 a year in fees. Minifie estimates that just introducing a tender for default funds would cause the average retirement payout of people in such funds to be 5 per cent higher.  That's about $40,000. Worth worrying about, I'd have thought.