Showing posts with label investment advice. Show all posts
Showing posts with label investment advice. Show all posts

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

We're having trouble learning to live without inflation

When I became an economic journalist in the early 1970s, the big economic problem was high and rising inflation. The rate of increase in consumer prices briefly touched 17 per cent a year under the Whitlam government, and averaged about 10 per cent a year throughout the decade.

It never crossed my mind then that one day the rise in prices would slow to a trickle – they rose by 0.7 per cent over the year to September – and I certainly never imagined that, if it ever did happen, people would have so much trouble living in a largely inflation-free world.

What? Why would anyone ever object to prices rising at a snail’s pace? Well, of course, no one does. Nor do you see many borrowers objecting to a fall in interest rates.

For savers, however, it’s a different story. Last month, when Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe announced what’s likely to be the last of many cuts in the official interest rate – it’s a bit hard to go lower than 0.1 per cent – there were bitter complaints from the retired.

“How do you expect us to live when you keep cutting the interest we get on our investments? How long are you going to keep screwing us down like this? When will you take the pressure off and start putting rates back up where they should be?”

Short answer to that last question: unless you’re only newly retired, probably not in your lifetime.

There’s something I need to explain. People like me may have given you the impression that our Reserve Bank moves interest rates up and down as it sees fit, cutting rates when the economy’s weak and it wants to encourage people to borrow and spend, or raising rates when the economy’s “overheating” and it wants to discourage borrowing and spending.

That’s true, but it’s not the whole truth. The deeper truth is that interest rates are closely related to the inflation rate. That’s because much of the rate of interest lenders require borrowers to pay them represents the compensation the lender needs to be paid just for the loss of purchasing power their money will suffer before it’s repaid.

(And when I talk about the lender, I mean the ultimate lender – ordinary savers – not the bank, which is just an intermediary standing between the ultimate lender and the ultimate borrower, probably someone with a home loan.)

So when the expected inflation rate is high, interest rates are high; when the expected inflation rate is low, so are interest rates. The other component of the interest payment lenders receive – the “real” interest rate – represents the actual fee the borrower pays for the temporary use of the lender’s money.

It’s only this much smaller real interest rate that the Reserve Bank is free to adjust up and down. So the main reason interest rates are so low and getting lower is that the inflation rate is low and getting lower.

And that’s not because of the pandemic and the recession it induced, so it won’t be going away when the economy recovers. It’s because, after rising steadily for about 30 years after World War II, the inflation rate in Australia – and all other advanced economies – has spent the past 30 years steadily going back down.

So inflation has gone away as a problem – leaving unemployment and underemployment as our dominant worry – and, as far as anyone can tell, it won’t be coming back for a long, long time.

If so, interest rates will be staying low, and it’s pointless to rail against the Reserve Bank. Rather, people reliant on their retirement savings will just have to adjust to a changed world.

If they want the safety of a bank term deposit, they’ll have to accept the tiny interest payment that goes with it. If that’s not enough, they’ll have to accept the greater risk and volatility that goes with share and other investments.

But let’s not exaggerate their predicament. If interest rates are low because inflation is low, that means their cost of living is low.

Indeed, the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ living cost index designed to measure the special circumstances of self-funded retirees shows their cost of living rose by just 0.7 per cent over the year to September.

Many self-described self-funded retirees take the view that their annual earnings from their superannuation should be sufficient for them to live on, thus leaving what they regard as the “principal” to cover future contingencies or be left to their children.

But, particularly for super payouts large enough to put retirees beyond being eligible for the age pension, it’s wrong to think of that payout as consisting of all your contributions (principal) plus interest. Well over half that sum consists not of your hard-earned, but of the government’s munificence in granting you 30 or 40 years of compounded tax concessions on both your contributions and your annual earnings.

Its generosity was intended to leave you with a sum sufficient to let you live comfortably in retirement, not to set up your kids’ inheritance. Trying to live without dipping into your payout isn’t a sign you’re doing it tough, it’s a lifestyle choice.


Saturday, October 5, 2019

Governments are learning to nudge us down better paths

The world is a complicated place – partly because humans are complicated animals. One of the many things this means is that when governments try to influence our behaviour, their chances of stuffing up are surprisingly high.

Consider this. Say I’m an investment adviser telling you (or your parents or grandparents) where to invest your retirement savings. I warn you that, should you take my advice, I’ll be paid a commission by the managers of the investments I put you into.

How do you react?

Well, you should react by becoming a lot more cautious about following my advice. It’s clear I have a conflict of interest. Is my advice aimed at doing the best I can for you, or at maximising the commissions I earn?

When governments require investment advisers to disclose any conflict of interest to their clients, that’s how the pollies expect you’ll react. They also expect that this requirement will prompt advisers to eliminate or reduce any conflict so their advice is more likely to be trusted.

But research by Dr Sunita Sah, a psychologist at Cornell University in upstate New York, has found it often doesn’t work like that. Although such disclosures do indeed cause clients to have less trust, they can often lead people to feel social pressure to act on the advice anyway.

Clients may be concerned that refusing to follow the advice would be a signal of their distrust in the adviser, with whom they’ve often formed a personal bond. They may even interpret the disclosure as a request that the advice be taken, as a favour to the adviser who, after all, needs to earn a living like the rest of us.

Sah found that clients given advice they knew to be conflicted were twice as likely to follow that advice as were clients where no disclosure was made.

The lesson is not that we should stop requiring advisers to disclose their conflicts, but that government policymakers need to think carefully about the specific design of their policies.

It turns out you can reduce the undesirable effects of disclosure if they come from a third party – that is, someone other than the adviser. It also helps if clients’ decisions are made in private, or if there’s a cooling-off period before the decision is finalised.

Have you guessed where this is leading? It’s a plug for a relatively new tool that’s been added to the bureaucrats’ policy toolkit – “behavioural insights”.

In a speech he gave in Canada last week, Dr David Gruen, a deputy secretary in our Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, explained that behavioural insights is an approach to policymaking that draws from psychology, cognitive sciences and economics to better understand human behaviour, help people make good choices more easily, and help improve the effectiveness of public policy interventions.

As the case of conflict-of-interest disclosures illustrates, people’s responses to government policy measures can be surprising. Politicians and bureaucrats need to be more conscious of the insights of behavioural insights when designing policies to fix problems.

And the behavioural insights tool can also be used for real-world testing of how policy measures are working – or not working – in practice.

The first government to establish a behavioural insights team was Britain in 2010, at the initiative of prime minister David Cameron, Gruen says. It’s since become a partly privatised joint venture.

By now, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, there are more than 200 public sector organisations around the world that have applied behavioural insights to their work.

In Australia, the federal government’s behavioural economics team – BETA – was set up to apply behavioural insights to public policy and to build behavioural-insights capability across the public service. It’s at the centre of a network of 10 behavioural insight teams across the federal government and alongside several state government teams.

These teams are also known as “nudge” units because they’re often trying to give individuals a nudge in the direction of making more sensible decisions, while leaving them free to do something else should they choose. You’re not forced, just nudged.

Gruen offered several examples of what the feds have been doing. BERT, the behavioural economics research team in the Department of Health, looked at the ballooning cost of reimbursements to doctors for providing after-hours care.

After-hours care considered urgent was remunerated at about twice the rate of that judged a non-urgent visit. Who judged whether the care was urgent? The doctor.

The department identified the 1200 doctors with the highest urgent after-hours claims, and ran a randomised control trial, sending each of them one of three alternative letters, with the letter a doctor received chosen at random.

One letter compared the doctor’s billing practices with their peers, showing they were claiming the urgent category far more often than others were. This drew on the behavioural insight that individuals are often motivated to change their behaviour when they are out of step with their peers.

The second letter emphasised the consequences of non-compliance, including the penalties and legal action. This letter drew on the behavioural insight that people tend to avoid losses more than they seek the equivalent gains.

The third letter was the control – the standard bureaucratic compliance letter, running to three pages.

All three letters were successful in reducing claims, but the peer-comparison one was far more effective than either the standard compliance letter or the loss-framing letter. The peer-comparison letter reduced claims by 24 per cent.

And it was just a nudge, not a threat of punishment for dishonestly claiming cases to be urgent when they weren’t.

In the six months after the letters were sent, the 1200 high-claiming doctors reduced their claims by more than $11 million (across all three letters), and 18 doctors voluntarily owned up to more than $1 million in previous incorrect claims.

So, as Gruen concludes, a simple and cheap nudge can yield big dividends.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Times get tougher for the oldies

Glenn Stevens, governor of the Reserve Bank, is used to getting letters from angry citizens. Aside from the ones demanding to know why the Reserve can't solve all our problems by just printing more money, in days past most would have come from small-business people complaining about the latest increase in the official interest rate, which had taken their overdraft rate to ruinous levels.

These days, most come from angry retirees complaining about yet another cut in rates. Doesn't he realise people are trying to live on the interest on their savings?

That's the trouble with interest rates, of course, they cut both ways – a cost of borrowers, but income to savers. The media assume we're all borrowers, so they boo rate rises and cheer rate cuts, adding insult to the oldies' injury.

Like all central banks, the Reserve raises interest rates when it wants to slow the economy by discouraging borrowing and spending, and cuts rates when it wants to speed things up – as now. It jumps that way because households' and businesses' debts total a lot more than their savings.

When I was a young economic journalist in the 1970s, the retired were always complaining about high inflation. Their cost of living was rising rapidly, but they had to live on "fixed incomes" that didn't keep pace.

We eventually solved that problem. Interest rates caught up with higher inflation and, as well, we moved to adjusting pensions regularly in line with prices and then with wages. By the early 1990s we finally had inflation back under control.

How times change. These days, most people retire with superannuation or other savings, which they use to supplement – or occasionally replace – their pension. And since they need to live on the earnings from their savings, they need those earnings to be steady, not go up and down like the share market.

Thus the retired like to put most of their savings in interest-bearing bank accounts, term deposits or pension funds that have most of their money in bonds. So these days a lot of retired are back to living on "fixed incomes", meaning they hate to see interest rates falling.

Our official interest rate is down to 2 per cent, a record low, having been cut 10 times since late 2011. The rates paid to savers are only a little higher. Even so, our rates are relatively high compared with most advanced countries. They're near zero in most developed economies, and in parts of Europe you actually have to pay the bank a tiny percentage to persuade it to hold your money.

I'll let you into an open secret: Stevens will be retiring as governor next September, though since he'll only be 58 – just a boy, really – I doubt he'll be putting his feet up.

He said a few things last week that make you think he's turning his mind to retirement. And he doesn't like what he sees.

"My guess is that global interest rates are still going to be very low for a good part of the decade ahead," he told the Australian Business Economists.

It's likely the US Federal Reserve will raise its official interest rate a fraction this month. But Stevens doesn't see US rates rising far. The European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan were "a long way from even thinking about higher interest rates". And the Europeans are openly contemplating further cuts.

So the average official interest rate in the major money centres may be very low for quite a while, he said.

Trouble is, "in a low interest-rate world, the problems of providing retirement incomes will become ever more prominent".

The very low level of yields (returns) on government bonds and other fixed-interest securities means the prices of such securities are very high (it was actually rising bond prices that caused yields to go so low).

So these days it costs you or your pension fund a lot just to buy securities that pay such low amounts of interest. Which is another way of saying you now need to retire with a lot more savings than you did to maintain a given standard of living.

Added to that, we're living longer and so need our savings to last longer.

Stevens said the retiree can, of course, respond to the reduced attractiveness of fixed-interest securities by holding more of her savings in dividend-paying shares. This involves accepting more risk of volatility, of course.

Certain well-known Aussie companies pay big, steady dividends, which usually come with refundable income tax rebates (known as franking credits) attached. Most people would also be hoping to see these dividends grow over time, as inflation continues.

"It certainly seems that many Australian listed corporates feel the pressure from shareholders to deliver that, even some whose earnings are inherently volatile," Stevens said.

Can the corporate sector realistically promise growing dividends over a long period? Not without being prepared to take on greater risk by investing in new projects.

"How much of that risk an older shareholder base will allow boards and managements of listed entities to take is an important question," he said.

"Overall, in a world where a bigger proportion of the population wants to be retired and living (even if only in part) off the return on their savings, those returns are likely, all other things equal, to be lower."

A good argument for delaying retirement.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Very low rates are more worrying than you think

Never thought I'd see the day when Treasury willingly surrendered the leadership of the nation's economists to the Reserve Bank, but it happened this week.

The new Treasury secretary, John Fraser, has broken a tradition lasting more than two decades to speak about the budget at a luncheon of the Australian Business Economists on the following Tuesday.

This follows the absence of Budget Statement No. 4 from last week's budget papers. It's the statement I call Treasury's sermon, but a disappointed Saul Eslake, of Bank of America Merrill Lynch, calls Treasury's "thought leadership essay".

But Dr Philip Lowe, deputy governor of the Reserve Bank, personfully stepped into the breach with a ground-breaking speech about "what seems to be a transition to a world in which global interest rates are lower, at least for an extended period, than we had previously become used to".

Does that sound like a good problem to have? Don't be so sure. Interest rates are two-edged: a cost to borrowers, but income to lenders. No one enjoys suffering a drop in their income, as many oldies have been reminding us lately.

The central banks of the US, the euro zone and Japan have for some years had their official (overnight) interest rates set at or near zero. At the other extreme, the yields (interest rates) on 10-year government bonds in these countries are at "extraordinary low levels".

These very low nominal rates mean savers investing in risk-free assets (government bonds) are earning negative real rates of return – because nominal rates are lower than the rate of inflation. "They also mean the time value of money is negative," Lowe says.

Huh? Say you win $10,000 in a lottery, but are offered the choice of receiving the money now or in three years time. Which would you pick?

Most people would want the money now. If you've got it now you can either use it to buy something and enjoy what you've bought for three years, or you can lend the money to someone else for three years and be rewarded by the interest you charge them.

When you think about all that, you realise the truth of the economists' saying that "a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow". That's the time value of money. The actual amount of that value is determined by the interest rate you could earn if you had the dollar today, or the rate you'd avoid having to pay to be able to spend today a dollar you didn't have.

This analysis isn't about the effects of inflation, but about the value of the use of money over time. So the time value of money is the real interest rate (the nominal interest rate minus the expected inflation rate).

Time value means that if I had to pay you $10,000 in three years time, the amount I'd have to set aside today would be less than that because the money I set aside could be earning interest between now and then.

If I knew the interest rate was, say, 4.5 per cent, I could work out how much I had to set aside today to have $10,000 in three years time. The process of working this out is called "discounting". It's compound interest in reverse.

The initial amount you'd need turns out to be $8763, which is called the "present value" of $10,000 in three years.

All this is standard stuff for economists and business people evaluating investment projects or managing invested funds. It's deeply ingrained in the way they've been taught to think.

That's why it's quite shocking for Lowe to say the time value of money is now negative. He's saying that, for goodness knows how long, a dollar today is worth less than a dollar tomorrow.

Another implication is that there's now no compensation for postponing consumption to tomorrow – which, of course, is what savers are doing.

How do we find ourselves in this remarkable situation? The "proximate" (most obvious) cause is the actions of the big central banks and their "quantitative easing" (creation of money). But, Lowe says, central banks don't act in a vacuum, they respond to the world they find themselves in.

That world is one where more people want to save, but fewer people want to invest in new physical assets. In such a world, the interest rate, which is what "equilibrates" saving and investment, falls.

If this situation is long-lasting, Lowe says, it poses "new questions and challenges". It changes a lot of our unconscious rules about how the world works.

For a start, for people seeking to fund future liabilities – such as employers with defined-benefit pension schemes, or even just people saving to amass an adequate lump sum to retire on – it just got a lot harder. The present value of future liabilities is now higher, meaning you have to put more in to reach your target.

Second, lower rates mean the present (that is, discounted) value of a stream of future income from an asset is now higher. This, in turn, means the asset is worth more and so will now have a higher price.

This is brought about by savers, dissatisfied with the low returns on risk-free assets (government bonds), seeking the higher returns from riskier assets (say, shares of companies with high dividend rates) and thereby pushing up their prices.

Third, if the cost of (financial) capital has fallen but firms don't lower their "hurdle rates" – the expected rate of return required before potential physical investment projects get the go-ahead – then we don't get the growth in business investment spending needed to get the economy moving (and don't have increased demand for the use of savings working to get interest rates back up).

We just have to hope businesses eventually learn how the rules have changed and adjust accordingly.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Behavioural economics makes more sense to regulators

Pssst ... have you heard about this great new investment product called hybrid securities? They're terrific. Rather than having to choose between high-reward, high-risk shares and low-risk, low-reward bonds and other debt securities, hybrids give you the best of both worlds: high reward, low risk.

At least, that's what I think. And it's probably what the outfit that sold me the hybrids wanted me to think. But it's certainly not what the Australian Securities and Investments Commission wants people to think.

It regards hybrid securities as highly complex, tricky investments. They often promise high yields and are issued by well-known companies with trusted brands, but "investors need to very carefully consider the features and risks before investing".

So keen is the commission to make sure it's getting the message through to potential investors that it did something unusual: it resorted to the behavioural economists – those who, rather than assuming everyone always acts rationally, use psychology to discover how real people make decisions – to help it understand what it is that attracts people to hybrids.

It commissioned the Queensland behavioural economics group at the Queensland University of Technology Business School to conduct some experiments. The group assembled a lot of business-school uni students and gave each of them 100 units to be notional invested in a portfolio of bonds, hybrids and shares, getting them to take it seriously by promising to let them keep any profit they made.

First, however, it asked each student a bunch of questions designed to establish whether their decision-making was influenced any of a range of "cognitive biases" rather than solely rational consideration of the options.

Investors are known to be commonly affected by such "heuristics" (mental shortcuts) as the availability bias, representativeness bias, framing bias, recency bias, overconfidence, illusion of control, competence bias, ambiguity aversion and mental accounting.

So now, gentle reader, it's time for me to ask you some strange questions on this long weekend.

Give me high and low estimates for the average weight of an adult male sperm whale (the largest of the toothed whales) in tonnes. Choose numbers far enough apart to be 90 per cent certain that the true answer lies somewhere between.

Don't like that one? Try this: give me high and low estimates of the distance to the moon in kilometres. Choose numbers far enough apart to be certain that the true answer lies somewhere between.

Now something more personal. When you buy a Lotto ticket do you feel more encouraged regarding your chances if you choose the number yourself rather than using a computer-generated number?

Answer: (a) I'm more likely to win if I control the numbers picked, or (b) it makes no difference to me how the numbers are chosen.

Huh? What's all this about? Extensive testing has allowed psychologists to use people's answers to the first two questions to determine whether they suffer from overconfidence. (If you must know, such whales weigh about 40 tonnes and the moon is 384,400 kilometres away.)

Plenty of investors are overconfident in the sense that they have unwarranted faith in their own intuitive reasoning, judgments and cognitive abilities. Their ability to sell up just before the boom turns to bust, for instance.

Can you guess what the Lotto question was intended to discover? It makes no difference to your (tiny) odds of winning Lotto whether you or a computer picks your numbers.

If you imagine it does, you're suffering from what psychologists call the "illusion of control" – the belief you can control, or at least influence future outcomes when, in fact, you can't.

The illusion of control has been found to contribute to the overconfidence bias. And it's a lot more common than you may think. It is, for instance, the reason people keep asking economists for their forecasts about the economy even though they know economists are hopeless forecasters. We like to delude ourselves we can control the future.

Anyway, the Queensland behavioural economists – Anup Basu, Uwe Dulleck, Yola Engler and Markus Schaffner – found from their experiment that students who were more overconfident and suffered from the illusion of control were more inclined than others to invest in hybrid securities.

With better information about what it is that attracts some investors to buy hybrids, the commission should be able craft more effective warnings to people who need to think a lot more carefully before they leap in.

Of course, it also helps to know how to word your warnings. A growing number of government regulatory bodies around the word have found that different ways of writing a letter can have a surprising effect on the way people respond to it – whether they ignore it or act on it.

The commission asked the Queensland behavioural economics group to suggest ways of improving its letters to the directors of companies in liquidation, reminding them of their legal duty to co-operate with the liquidator in handing over the company's books and providing any other information.

Again the group conducted a laboratory experiment. Such experiments, using uni students, have their disadvantages, but they also have the advantage of giving researchers greater ability to control the many factors that could influence the decisions you're studying.

The experimenters recommended that the commission proceed to a randomised controlled trial where some directors were sent the present letter, while others were sent one of four different letters: one where the order of the points was reverse to make them easier to remember, one including a "social norm" noting that about 75 per cent of directors comply, one that allows directors to make active decisions that involve them in the process, and one that appeals to the good intentions most directors have.

At least some of those changes are likely to significantly improve directors' compliance. Practical regulators are getting much more useful advice from the behavioural brand of economists.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

How mental biases expose us to exploitation

So, you're a regular reader of the business pages and you reckon you're smarter than the average bear when it comes to financial matters. Well, here are some common "biases" to which people fall victim when making decisions about financial products. See if you can put hand on heart and swear you've never made any of these mistakes. If you can, you're a lot smarter than me.

Have you ever overspent on your credit card, or paid off less of it than you know you should? And if you pass that one, try this one: are you confident you're saving enough to ensure your retirement is as comfortable as you'd like it to be?

If you fall short on any of those, you've been affect by what psychologists call "present bias" and behavioural economists call "time-inconsistent preferences" (so in the competition to make your discipline sound smarter than it is, the economists win).

People often succumb to the urge for immediate gratification, thinking too little about the problems this will create for them down the track. It's natural - economists would say "rational" - to value the present more highly than the future. But if you go too far in that direction and end up regretting the choices you made, you've overvalued the present and undervalued the future, making your preferences inconsistent over time.

Most of us have a self-control problem in some field or other. People who are overconfident about their ability to control themselves in the future - to, say, manage heavy repayments - will make their lives more of a pain than they need to be.

Those who are more realistic often use "commitment devices" to impose self-control on themselves. The most extreme example is to cut up your credit card. Compulsory superannuation contributions for employees are a kind of government-imposed commitment device to help us save for retirement - which may be why so few people object.

Businesses exploit our self-control problems by, say, designing a gym subscription that seems cheap, but only if we keep using it for the length of the contract. Or by starting a credit card or home loan with a low interest rate (known in the trade as a "teaser" rate) but then jumping to an overly high rate.

Have you ever delayed moving to a better bank account, or putting some of your savings in a term deposit paying a higher interest rate? The experts call this "procrastination" (now that's a surprise) and class it as a version of present bias.

Examples are legion: deciding to cancel something but not getting around to it, not checking to see if the accounts and the loans and phone contracts you have are still the best available, or not putting much work into searching for the best deal in the first place.

This, too, leaves you open to exploitation by businesses. Some offer a "free trial" while knowing few people will cancel the deal when the paying period begins. Even requiring cancellation by post exploits our inertia.

Have you ever driven a hard bargain to buy a new car, but then gone overboard buying extras like rust-proofing, window-tinting or an improved security system? Have you ever bought a new TV or computer, then been sold extended warranty insurance?

Have you ever hung on to shares now worth less than you paid for them, hoping they will come good and you won't have to accept you made a bad decision to buy them?

If so, you've fallen victim to the biases of "reference dependence" in the first case and "loss aversion" in the second.

It's virtually impossible to look at something and decide what you think about it without consciously or unconsciously comparing it with something else. When buying a car, we compare and contrast all the ones we could buy. Failing that, we compare the one we're thinking of buying with our old one. If we don't have an old car to compare with, we compare having one with going by bus.

Comparisons are almost unavoidable. But we're so dependent on having something else to compare with - use as a point of reference - that if a sensible comparison isn't available we'll use one that makes no sense at all.

An old experiment asks people to estimate how many African countries are members of the United Nations. Most people have no idea. But if, before or while asking the question I mention 60, many people will seize on that number. Do I reckon the number of countries is more or less than 60? How much more, or how much less? That's an easier question to answer.

This way of making decisions is known as "anchor and adjust" and all of us use it all the time, consciously and unconsciously. Trouble is, 60 was a number plucked from the air. Experiments show that if you mention 100 rather than 60 before asking the question you get higher answers.

Point is that our reference dependence makes us easy meat for clever salespeople. We go overboard buying extras for our new car because they all seem so cheap relative to the huge sum we've just forked out to buy the car.

Likewise with extended warranties, which are notoriously overpriced for what little you get back. Anyone wanting to buy "peace of mind" is usually overcharged.

It's an empirical fact that most of us hate making losses much more than we love making gains. By about two to one, they say.

This explains why we do silly things like hanging on to dud shares we should sell - and then should put the proceeds into something with better prospects of gain.

These examples come from a report on behavioural economics prepared by Britain's new Financial Conduct Authority, which has been charged with finding ways to prevent businesses taking advantage of our lack of rational thinking. Good idea.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Big business now calling the economic shots

Sometimes I wonder whether the economy is being managed for our benefit or for the benefit of the big businesses that dominate it. The two big supermarket chains we get to choose between, the two domestic airlines and privately owned airports, the three foreign mining giants that were allowed to redesign the mining tax they didn't like, and the four big banks that control so much of our superannuation and the investment advice we get, not to mention our savings accounts and mortgages.

I'm old enough to remember when economic life seemed to be dominated by big unions. Hardly a month passed without our lives being disrupted by some strike. We'd be walking miles to work or finding someone to mind the kids while the teachers were out.

I remember finishing a holiday in New Zealand with our young family, only to find the baggage handlers in Sydney were on strike and being stuck in Christchurch for an extra two days.

Thank goodness we don't have to put up with all that any more. But in place of being bossed around by the unions, we now have big business calling the shots. They don't inconvenience us like the unions did, but they do seem to have the ear of government.

Big business is always complaining about some way the economy's being run that doesn't meet with its approval. It's always warning of the terrible economic price we'll pay if it doesn't get what it wants. Its complaints are always treated with reverence by the media. And always taken seriously by the government, Labor or Coalition.

We seem to be developing a new economic religion that what's good for big business is good for the country. No one believes this more fervently than the big business people themselves - plus their never-silent lobby groups.

These paragons of industry want to be unfettered in their efforts to expand their businesses and make higher profits, which they're doing purely in the interests of you and me. And they're always terribly impatient. They want to frack wherever they want to frack, they want to start tomorrow and they don't want selfish, short-sighted people to slow them down, let alone stop them.

They want to invest in a new mine or a new something which will create tens of thousands of new jobs in the district, and what other consideration could possibly trump that? If you want to consult the locals before granting permission, this is "red tape", which by definition is bad and must be swept aside. If you want time to investigate the environmental impact of the project, this is "green tape" and just as much economic vandalism as the red.

Another problem is the breakdown of "caveat emptor" - it's the buyer's job to make sure they're not ripped off. Products, particularly financial products, have become complex and hard to compare - deliberately so, you have to suspect.

In theory, we're supposed to read every word of the contracts we sign, know whether the nice man giving us advice on our savings is being paid to push some products but not others, know whether he'll go on receiving a commission for years without contacting us again, check continually to see whether our bank is now offering a better deal than we get without telling us or whether we should be moving our banking business, check what fees we're being charged on our superannuation and whether a different fund would give us a better deal.

In theory, we should devote much of our free time to doing all that. In practice, few do. We like to relax when we're not working and are diverted by an ever-multiplying range of commercial entertainments.

In practice, big business knows far more about this stuff than we do. So we need governments to protect us from being exploited, prohibiting certain kinds of behaviour, requiring financial institutions to keep us informed in ways we can understand and not take advantage of our inferior knowledge and inertia.

After many people lost their savings during the financial crisis, the previous federal government decided to tighten up on financial advice. Its original plans were modified after lobbying by the banks and their lobby groups, and now they've been watered down further by the present government - all in the name of reducing red tape.

The government compels most employees to contribute 9.5 per cent of their salaries to superannuation, from which the people running those funds extract very high fees - now equal to an amazing 1 per cent of gross domestic product - which greatly reduce final payouts.

The interim report of the inquiry into the financial system found that the fees appeared high by international standards. It found little evidence of strong fee-based competition between funds. The funds have got a lot bigger in recent years, but these economies of scale haven't led to lower fees.

The previous government introduced a new, simpler super account called MySuper in an effort to reduce fees, but the report says it's too early to assess its success in doing so. Last week, the Financial Services Council lobby group began arguing strongly that fees aren't too high. We must hope it isn't as influential in resisting the push for lower super fees as it was in getting the investment-advice protections watered down.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Putting people back in the rent or buy decision

So, the Reserve Bank has done the numbers and killed the Great Australian Dream: owning your home is no more lucrative than a lifetime of renting. Somehow, I doubt that will be the end of the matter - and nor should it be.

The strongest conclusion we should draw from the Reserve’s figuring is that, when you view home ownership purely as a financial investment, buying rather than renting isn’t the deadset winner most people assume.

It can be a close run thing, mainly because people take insufficient account of the costs of home ownership - not just all the interest they pay but the stamp duty and conveyancing costs, insurance, repairs and maintenance and the rates and other payments not borne by renters.

But our deeply ingrained belief that home ownership is a great investment is only one of our motives for wanting to own rather than rent. The other big one is security of tenure.

It’s nice to own your own place and make your own decisions about alterations and improvements, minor and major, about painting it or not painting, building up the garden or not bothering.
 It’s also nice to know you’re unlikely to have to leave it unless it’s your choice. Renters generally have a lot less say over how long the rental lasts, rent rises and changes of landlord.

The Reserve’s calculations take no account of these non-monetary considerations, which could easily be sufficient to bring ownership in as a clear winner in many people’s minds (starting with me).

And though those calculations are as careful and impartial as you would expect of the central bank, that doesn’t stop them being based on assumptions and averages like all such calculations, meaning they may or may not be a good fit with your own circumstances and preferences.

For instance, what’s true for average home prices across Australia, may not be true for Sydney. And what’s true for the whole of Sydney may not be equally true for inner ring, middle ring and outer ring homes.

We know the authorities expect huge growth in Sydney’s population over the next 20 or 30 years. And unless they greatly improve their performance on congestion, my guess is we will see inner-ring property prices grow a lot faster than Sydney prices generally.

The Reserve’s calculations roll together home owners and renters of all ages and stages. But switching rental accommodation is not the problem for young adults that it can be for families with school-age children.

The calculations assume home owners change homes every 10 years. If you have already, or intend to, stay put a lot longer than that then your investment is already performing, or is likely to perform, better than the figures suggest.

Of course, no calculations based on what’s happened to home prices and rents over the past 60 years is a foolproof guide to what they’ll do over the coming 60.

And remember, the low level at which the age pension is set tacitly assumes people own their homes outright. The value of your home isn’t included in the means test, but other investments are.


Monday, July 14, 2014

Bankers and wealth managers take ethics oath

As the misadventures of the can-do Commonwealth Bank remind us, even though our bankers didn't bring the house down in the global financial crisis as happened elsewhere, we still had too many victims of bad investment advice losing their savings.

So, what's the answer? Tighter regulation of banks and investment advisers, or a higher standard of ethical behaviour by individuals working in banking and wealth management? Try both.

I'm not so naive as to have much faith in self-regulation, but that's not to deny that some people's behaviour is more ethical than others', nor that more individuals behaving ethically would make a difference.

When you stop believing our personal behaviour matters, that we're all mere cogs in some uncontrollable machine, it's time to slit your throat.

My guess is most people like to think of themselves as reasonably ethical, which is not to say most of us actually are at all times (not even me). Trouble is, most people make their judgments about what is ethical and what's not from the behaviour of those around then.

Moral compasses are hard to find. But that's why I'd like to see a movement initiated by Dr Simon Longstaff, of the St James Ethics Centre, the "banking and finance oath", get more publicity and more signatories. The better known are the oath and those who've signed up, the better judgments others can make about how a particular action measures up.

The oath consists of nine principles: trust is the foundation of my profession; I will serve all interests in good faith; I will compete with honour; I will pursue my ends with ethical restraint; I will create a sustainable future; I will help create a more just society; I will speak out against wrongdoing and support others who do the same; I will accept responsibility for my actions; my word is my bond.

The names of the many signatories to this oath are listed on its website, They include Glenn Stevens, Jillian Broadbent, Carolyn Hewson, Warren Hogan, Andrew Mohl and Elizabeth Proust.

Why doesn't someone ask the chief executives of the big four banks just what it is that makes them feel unable to sign up? It couldn't be a threat to their profitability, surely.

THESE days the world is positively awash with forecasts of what will happen to the economy. Treasury publishes its forecasts twice a year, the Reserve Bank publishes four times a year and a couple of dozen economists in the financial markets make their forecasts regularly and freely available.

But it wasn't always like that. Before the financial markets were deregulated in the early 1980s few economists worked in them, the Reserve kept its opinions to itself and Treasury's official forecasts in the budget papers were kept terribly vague. Billy Snedden's last budget advised that "economic growth is expected to quicken considerably in 1972-73".

When I became an economic reporter in 1974, one of the few unofficial forecasters was Melbourne University's Melbourne Institute, where the regular pronouncements of Dr Duncan Ironmonger drew rapt attention from the media.

And by then Philip Shrapnel's business selling his forecasts had been going for 10 years, meaning the economic analysis and forecasting firm BIS Shrapnel is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Shrapnel, who trained at the Reserve, spent a few years working as a forecaster for pretty much the only notable management consulting firm in those days, WDScott, before going out on his own. He was a character, said to polish off a least half a bottle of scotch as he stayed up studying the documents on budget night.

A lot of the people who paid to attend his forecasting conferences - still held today - would have been there to get his forecasts and plug them into their company's annual budget. These days my guess is his company makes more of its money from its research reports on particular industries and its special focus on property and construction.

Whereas David Love's rival subscription newsletter, Syntec, made its name from its uncanny ability to read the mind of Treasury, Shrapnel was fiercely independent. Not for him the risk-averse strategy of clustering with everyone else around the official forecast.

His successors retain this approach of doing their own analysis their own way and sticking to it. Like all forecasters they've had their misses, but their independence of mind may explain some notable calls: no downturn as a result of the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98; a downturn in 2000-01 no one else was expecting; and no recession following the global financial crisis.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Abbott's red tape play-acting hides rent-seeking

The world of politicians gets deeper and deeper into spin, and so far no production of the Abbott government rates higher on the spin cycle than last week's Repeal Day.

Hands up if you believe in red tape? No, I thought not. So how about we package up a huge pile of window dressing with some worthwhile but minor measures, slip in a few favours for our big business supporters and generous donors, and call it the most vigorous attack on red tape ever? This will give a veneer of credibility to our claim it will do wonders for the economy.

In the process, of course, we'll have changed the meaning of "red tape". It's meant to mean bureaucratic requirements that waste people's time without delivering any public benefit. In the hands of the spin doctors, however, it's being used to encompass everything from removing dead statutes to the supposed deregulation of industries.

Repealing redundant laws and regulations dating back as far as 1900 is mere window dressing. By definition they don't waste anyone's time - if they did they'd have been repealed long ago. Their primary purpose is to allow Tony Abbott to quote huge numbers: today I announce the abolition of more than 1000 acts of Parliament and the repeal of more than 9500 regulations. A trick you can pull only once.

Somewhere in there is some genuine, time-wasting red tape we're better off without, but it doesn't add up to much - hence the need for so much padding. Governments of both colours are always promising to roll back red tape, mainly because it gives people such an emotional charge.

But while it's true there are examples of mindless, unreasonable bureaucratic rules and requirements that could be eliminated or greatly simplified at no loss to anyone, much alleged red tape is in the mind of the beholder: it's red tape if you don't like it and good governance if you do.

There are plenty of small business people who'd try telling you supplying information to the Bureau of Statistics was "pointless red tape", maybe even filling out tax returns. In an era when big business is going overboard on "metrics", it's whingeing about the "reporting burden" the government imposes so it - and the rest of us - can know what's going on in the economy.

When business isn't complaining about "compliance costs" it's demanding greater transparency and accountability from governments. Guess what? They're opposite sides of the same coin. The world is and always will be full of compliance costs. The sensible questions are whether they're higher than they need to be and whether the benefits of compliance outweigh the costs.

The notion that all so-called red tape comes from power-crazed bureaucrats is a delusion. Most excessive regulation comes from politicians. Sometimes they act at the behest of lobbyists for particular industries, sometimes they're merely trying to create the appearance of action (an old favourite is laws to make illegal something that's already against the law) and sometimes they pass an act to impress the punters while carefully leaving loopholes and escape hatches for the industry pros.

But the most objectionable feature of the whole red tape Repeal Day charade is the way it has been used as cover for rent-seeking by the Coalition's industry backers. It's an open secret the protections for investors provided by the Future of Financial Advice legislation are being watered down at the behest of the big banks, which want to be freer to incentivise unqualified sales people to sell inappropriate investment products to mug punters.

Then there's the strange case of the Charity Commission,which was set up only recently to reduce inefficient regulation and red tape. It's to be abolished despite the objections of most charities, presumably because the Catholic Church doesn't like it.

It's being claimed all these dubious doings will "drive productivity, innovation and employment opportunities", not to mention "creating the right environment for businesses of all sizes to thrive and prosper and to drive investment and jobs growth".

Yeah sure. The claimed savings of $700 million a year (don't ask how that figure was arrived at) are equivalent to 0.04 per cent of GDP, and yet they'll work wonders. Must be an incredible multiplier effect.

We're told we'll be getting at least two Repeal Days a year, with the goal of achieving savings worth $1 billion a year. Really, a minimum of six Repeal Days in Abbott's first term? What's the bet that promise will be quietly buried?

But for as long as this pseudo reform lasts it seems it's intended as a substitute for genuine deregulation.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Compulsory super without protections is a rip off

A few weeks ago, when I offered my list of our top 10 economic reforms of the past 40 years, I was surprised by the number of people arguing I should have included compulsory employee superannuation in the list. Really? I can't agree.

It is, after all, merely a way of compelling people to save for their retirement. That's probably no bad thing in principle, countering our all too human tendency to worry excessively about the here and now and too little about adequate provision for our old age.

But compulsory saving hardly counts as a major reform. I suspect some of my correspondents see it as a boon for workers because it extracts a benefit from employers over and above the wages they're paid.

If so, they've been misled by appearances. Economists are in no doubt it all comes out in the wash: that when the government obliges employers to contribute to workers' retirement savings, the employers eventually make up for it by granting smaller wage rises than they otherwise would have.

It's true that compulsory super contributions - and the subsequent earnings on them - attract tax concessions, being taxed at a flat rate of just 15 cents in the dollar. But while upper income-earners do disgracefully well out of these concessions, people on incomes around the average gain little advantage, and those earning less than $37,000 a year gain nothing. Hardly sounds fair to me.

My other reservation about compulsory super is the way it compels employees to become the victims of the most shamelessly grasping, overpaid industry of them all: financial services. These are the people who made top executives and medical specialists feel they were underpaid.

Compulsory super delivers a huge captive market for the providers of investment services to make an easy living from and for the less scrupulous among them to prey upon. The pot of money the government compels us to give these people to manage on our behalf has now reached $1.6 trillion.

Most of us have little idea how much these people appropriate from our life savings each year to reward themselves for the services we're compelled to let them provide to us - and little desire to find out.

We should be less complacent. For many workers it's more than we pay for electricity each year. Think of it: we put so much energy and passion into carrying on about the rising price of power - and Tony Abbott used our resentment to get himself elected - while the men in flash suits dip into our savings without most of us knowing or caring.

To be fair, industry super funds dip into our savings far more sparingly than the profit-driven "retail" funds backed by the big banks, insurance companies and firms of actuaries. Since most workers do have a choice, you'd need a very good reason not to have your money with an industry fund.

But even this worries me. It means the union movement - the people whose job is to protect workers by being full bottle on the tricks the finance industry gets up to - has divided loyalties. Those who should be holding the industry to account are also part of it.

For years the industry campaigned for an increase in the super levy of 9 per cent of salary, arguing it was insufficient to provide people with an adequate income in retirement. This is a dubious argument, rejected by the Henry taxation review.

But look at it another way: here is a hugely profitable industry arguing the government should increase the proportion of all employees' wages diverted to the industry for it to take annual bites out of before giving us access to our money at age 60 or later.

This is classic rent-seeking. The Howard government was never tempted to yield, but as part of the Labor government's mining-tax reform package, it agreed to boost compulsory super contributions to 12 per cent by 2019. Why? I don't doubt Labor was got at by the union end of the financial services industry.

Contributions increased to 9.25 per cent last July, but the Abbott government came to power promising to defer the phase-up for two years. I'd lay a small bet this deferral will become permanent - though probably not before contributions rise to 9.5 per cent on July 1.

I wouldn't be sorry to see the phase-up abandoned. The Henry report recommended against it, arguing that action to reduce the industry's fees could produce a similar increase in ultimate super payouts. And it's doubtful that low income earners are better off being compelled to save rather than spend their meagre earnings.

The government's policy of compelling workers to hand so much of their wages over to the finance industry surely leaves the government with a greater-than-normal obligation to ensure the industry doesn't exploit this monopoly by misadvising and overcharging its often uninformed customers.

This - along with the millions lost by investors in Storm Financial and other dodgy outfits - prompted Labor's Future of Financial Advice reforms, which focused on prohibiting or highlighting hidden commissions and requiring advisers to put their clients' interests ahead of their own.

But now Senator Arthur Sinodinos is seeking to water down these consumer protections in the name of reducing "red tape". The financial fat cats live to rip us off another day.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Executives put their salaries ahead of shareholders

For almost as long as big business has been crusading for a lower rate of company tax, I've been puzzling over its motives. Why are these people fighting for something of little or no benefit to their domestic shareholders and likely to be quite unpopular?

The willingness with which our economic establishment has gone along with the calls for lower company taxes is one of the great mysteries of the year. . Now the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has signed up as an urger in its latest report on Australia.

But as David Richardson demonstrated on Saturday in his technical brief for the Australia Institute, claims that a lower rate of company tax would lead to more investment, faster economic growth and higher employment are surprisingly weak when you bother to examine them.

The puzzle doesn't end there, however. If lower company tax was of benefit to shareholders, it wouldn't be surprising to see big business arguing for it, even if it was of little or no benefit to the wider economy. But even this motivation doesn't hold.

The push for lower company tax is enthusiastically pursued in the United States, and this wouldn't be the first reform push we'd imported holus-bolus from there. Just one small problem: we have a full dividend imputation system that the Yanks don't have.

It wouldn't be all that surprising if many economists - and many punters - weren't quite on top of how dividend imputation affects the push for a lower company tax rate. It would be amazing, however, if our chief executives didn't understand it. You'd also expect a lot of investment professionals - fund managers, their myriad consultants, stockbrokers - to know the score.

The point is simply stated: when the rate of company tax is 30 per cent, the recipients of fully franked dividends are entitled to a refundable tax credit worth 30 per cent of the grossed-up value of the dividend.

So if your marginal tax rate is 46.5 per cent, the extra income tax you have to pay on your grossed-up dividend falls to a net 16.5 per cent. In this way the double taxation of dividends is eliminated.

Now let's say the big business lobby succeeds in persuading the government to cut the company tax rate to 25 per cent. With an unchanged dividend, the refundable tax credit falls to 25 per cent and the remaining tax to be paid rises to 21.5 per cent.

Only if companies were to respond to the lower company tax rate by increasing their dividend payouts sufficiently, would domestic shareholders not see themselves as having been made worse off.

The introduction of dividend imputation led to a reduction in listed companies' efforts to minimise their company tax because Australian investors much prefer to hold the shares of companies paying enough tax to allow them to fully frank their dividends. Companies unable to deliver fully franked dividends can expect their share price to be marked down accordingly.

This is particularly true of Australian super funds, which are able to use imputation credits to largely extinguish the 15 per cent tax they pay on their annual investment earnings. (This tax quirk probably explains why our super funds are overinvested in shares and underinvested in fixed-interest areas.)

When you remember the way our chief executives bang on endlessly about shareholder value being their sole and sacred objective, you can only wonder why they pursue a cut in the company tax rate so fervently.

They're always distributing league tables showing our 30 per cent company tax rate as the equal seventh-highest among the 34 countries in the OECD. They never point to tables showing the combined effect of the company tax rate and the top personal tax rate. If they looked at it from this domestic shareholders' perspective, we'd fall to being just the 15th highest, with the US and Britain well above us.

For a long time I wondered whether the Business Council - many of whose members are largely foreign-owned - was championing the interests of foreign shareholders rather than locals.

It's true many foreign shareholders in Australian companies would benefit from a lower company tax rate because they're not eligible for imputation credits. One of the main reasons for the continued existence of company tax is to ensure the foreign owners of Australian businesses pay their fair share of Australian tax.

But not even all foreign shareholders would benefit from lower company tax. Americans (who account for more than a quarter of the stock of foreign investment in Australia) would gain nothing because the company tax rate they pay when they bring dividends home is already higher than our 30 per cent (for which they get a deduction). They wouldn't gain, but our Treasury would lose.

So what is big business on about? In his paper for the Australia Institute, Richardson argues it's a case of company executives pursuing their own interests, not those of the shareholders they profess to serve. (Economists call this a principal-and-agent problem.)

A lower rate of company tax would make companies' after-tax profits bigger, thus making their chief executives look more successful and probably leading to an increase in their remuneration.

It would also allow companies to retain and reinvest more after-tax earnings. This would make their companies bigger - which would probably also justify bosses being paid higher remuneration.

We already know chief executives play such self-seeking games because of all the mergers and takeovers, which rarely leave shareholders better off, but invariably leave the instigating chief executive more highly paid.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Treasury secretary cracks the whip over super funds

When Peter Costello announced his mindbogglingly generous changes to the taxation of superannuation in 2006, the air was thick with economists prophesying such profligacy would soon prove unsustainable.

Even in business circles, the good news was widely judged too good to last. Super payouts would be tax-free for those 60 and over (thus making people's age as well as the extent of their income a criterion for how much tax they paid) and the salary-sacrifice lurk for the better off was opened wide.

At the time, Treasury, whose advice seemed to have been followed by the Howard government, wasn't having a bar of the conventional criticism, and I volunteered to make sure the government's side of the story got an airing.

Since the arrival of the Rudd-Gillard government, however, the approach to super seems to have changed, suggesting the policy advice may also have changed. Despite (or maybe because it is) planning to phase up the compulsory employer contribution rate from 9 per cent of salary to 12 per cent, Labor has been chipping away at the cost - and the unfairness - of the super tax concession. It has largely eliminated the salary-sacrifice lurk, corrected the situation where those on low incomes gained no concession on their contributions and, in effect, restored the Howard government's 15 per cent super surcharge for those earning more than $300,000 a year.

Last week, the present secretary to the Treasury, Dr Martin Parkinson, removed any doubt that Treasury's attitudes have changed in a tough speech to the super funds association. He warned that, looking ahead, there were challenges for the present super arrangements. An obvious one, he said, was the ageing of the population. Although Australia was much better placed than many of the developed economies to cope with the budgetary costs of ageing, "the question remains, however, whether the current framework for our superannuation system will be sustainable into the future. While changes to the superannuation guarantee have been important for improving adequacy, they will clearly come at the cost of forgone revenue. Also, governments over time have introduced a range of concessions that encourage increased voluntary saving in superannuation. Again, these concessions come at a cost, indeed a very significant cost.

"With the Commonwealth budget coming under increasing pressure over the next few decades, the fiscal sustainability of all policies, including superannuation, will demand greater public scrutiny. This scrutiny will be even more important to the extent that existing concessions are seen to favour some at the expense of the majority."

When you remember all the promises both sides are taking into next year's election, and the difficulty whoever wins will have keeping the budget on track, it is not hard to guess where Treasury will be suggesting they look for savings.

Apart from the motor industry, there are not many sectors greedier in their rent-seeking than the super sector. Dr Parkinson took the opportunity to remind the funds in person he is no soft touch. How is this for frankness: "The government ensures the superannuation sector is provided with a steady, guaranteed and concessionally taxed supply of money. No other industry has this guarantee. None."

That sounds to me like a heavy hint the government is entitled to, first, keep the industry pretty tightly supervised and, second, expect a high standard of performance. He who pays the piper ...

"I would suggest that the superannuation industry has a responsibility to its stakeholders, including members and the government, to invest money prudently so the returns are in the best interests of members and to develop new products to meet the demands of our ageing population," he said.

"To date, the superannuation sector has focused primarily on the accumulation phase. But as the system matures, as more people move into the withdrawal phase, and as people in general live longer, there will be increased demand on the industry to assist individuals to manage the various phases of retirement and key risks like longevity ...

"Members reasonably ask: What has super delivered for me? And, more importantly, what will super deliver for me into the future? That means asking tough questions about the industry's readiness and capability to meet future challenges."

Now cop this: "I am not necessarily advocating any particular investment pattern, although I do have reservations about excessive reliance on equities."

It is a safe bet that, not long after the contribution rate reaches 12 per cent of salary, the industry will resume agitating for it to be raised to 15 per cent.

Dr Parkinson left the super funds in no doubt where he stands on the question of super's adequacy, quoting the example of a 30-year-old entering the workforce today, earning median wages and working for 37 years. They are projected to retire with an income equivalent to 90 per cent of their standard of living while working.

He said the level of super funds' management fees had been "a concern for Treasury". To tackle this concern, the government commissioned the Cooper review, from which had emerged its "stronger super" reforms, including SuperStream and MySuper.

SuperStream will see greater automation, common date standards and a network to centralise information and transactions. MySuper will provide a low-cost default super product that removes unnecessary and costly features.

The reforms could increase the retirement payout of a typical young worker by $40,000. I get the feeling that, should industry resistance prevent the reforms from delivering as expected, the issue will stay on Treasury's to-do list.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

How to improve investment advice to retirees

They say that at every stage of life the baby boomers reach, the world changes to accommodate their needs. So now the boomers are starting to reach retirement, it's the investment advisers' turn to lift their game.

To date, the superannuation industry's greatest attention has been paid to the accumulation phase: how much people need to save to ensure an adequate income in retirement. But the boomers' interest is switching to the retirement phase: how their savings should be managed to best effect.

And there are signs financial planners are working to improve the advice they give retirees. This seems clear from a recent speech by Dominic Stevens, of the annuities provider Challenger. Stevens made extensive use of an article by Joseph Tomlinson, "A Utility-based Approach to Evaluating Investment Strategies", published in the US Journal of Financial Planning. I'll be drawing on both sources.

To date, most advice to retirees has focused on "asset allocation" - how their investments should be divided between shares and fixed-interest securities - and on setting a safe rate at which money can be withdrawn and spent without it running out before the retiree dies.

Tomlinson's objective is to provide advice that is less one-size-fits-all, encompasses more eventualities and incorporates the insights of behavioural economics. These days, computers make it easier to provide more accurate advice and deliver it in user-friendly programs.

Remember, no one knows what the future holds. Who knows what will happen to the sharemarket - or any other financial market? So advice is based on reasonable assumptions and on averages, and advisers seek to estimate expected returns.

But more can be done to allow for the personal preferences of the particular retiree and to take account of the range of likely outcomes around the average.

The first issue is the "risk-return trade-off". The higher returns some investments offer - shares versus fixed interest, for instance - usually reflect a higher degree of risk: risk you won't get your money back, and risk that returns will vary a lot from year to year. It's generally accepted that old people who need to live off their savings can't afford to run the same degree of risk as young people with many years to recover from sharemarket setbacks.

These days more attention is being paid to "sequencing risk". Say you need to live off your savings for 15 years and it's reasonable to expect there'll be two bad years for the sharemarket in that time. Just when those two years occur makes a big difference.

If they come late, it won't be so bad; if they come early you could be almost wiped out and never recover. This suggests retirees need to hold more of their savings in fixed interest than many do.

In any case, most people are "risk averse". Consider this choice: which would you prefer, the certainly of earning $100, or a 50 per cent chance of earning nothing and a 50 per cent chance of earning $200?

If you were "rational" you wouldn't care either way because both options have the same "expected value" (for the second: 50 per cent of $0 plus 50 per cent of $200 equals $100).

If you much preferred the certain $100, that makes you risk averse (and normal). If you fancied the chance of walking away with $200, that makes you a "risk seeker". Risk aversion is pretty much the only departure from "rational" behaviour that economists regularly allow for.

A vital question in working out how much of your savings you should withdraw each year (a common rule of thumb is 4 per cent) is how long you'll live. You can't know, of course.

The advisers' standard approach is to look up in the government's actuarial life tables the average life expectancy for someone of your sex and age.

If the answer was 20 years, this would be used for your planning. But a lot of people will fall a bit below or a bit above the average, and Tomlinson's more sophisticated calculations take account of this wider range of probabilities. At present, the main objective in setting your withdrawal rate is to ensure you don't suffer "plan failure" - run out of money before you die.

The alternative to running out is to die with money left - the "bequest amount".

Conventional economics assumes that, dollar for dollar, your pain at having your money run out before you're ready to die would be equal to your pleasure at knowing you'll be leaving a bequest to your relos.

But this seems highly unlikely. As Stevens argues, if a retiree was living on $30,000 a year and that dropped to $20,000, it would have a more profound negative effect that the positive effect of income increasing to $40,000.

The two psychologists who pioneered behavioural economics, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, call this "loss aversion" (as opposed to risk aversion). They found that most people hate losing $100 about twice as much as they like gaining $100. Since running out of money before you die is a much bigger deal than losing small sums while you're working, it's likely retirees' loss aversion is a lot greater than the usual rate of 2:1. Some preliminary surveys suggest it might be as high as 10:1.

If so, this means retirees' desire to avoid running out of money (and having to fall back on the age pension) is a lot stronger than investment advisers' conventional calculations assume. And this, in turn, suggests retirees' choice of investments ought to be a lot more cautious than it often is.

Tomlinson argues that particular retirees' degree of loss aversion ought to be taken directly into account when determining the best investment strategy to meet their needs. When you do so, the bottom line of the calculation is not the average expected return on their savings but the average expected utility from those savings.

His refinement takes account of the possible size of plan failure - whether your savings are gone one year before you die or 10 years - not just whether or not failure is likely.

It also acknowledges the size of bequests is likely to suffer from diminishing marginal utility. Each extra dollar gives you less satisfaction than the one before.

Shifting the focus from expected returns to expected utility could make investment advisers' advice a lot more realistic and thus a lot more helpful.