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Keating versus Hume: where willy-nilly meets obscene

Graham Hand  |  02 Sep 2020Text size  Decrease  Increase  |  
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Senator Jane Hume is treading on ground where many other Liberal warriors were buried at the dispatch box. Whatever you think of Paul Keating, few have matched his devastating one-liners which will live long in the annals of Australian politics. There is even a Paul Keating Insult Appreciation Society on Facebook with 64,000 members. He told John Hewson in 1992: “I want to do you slowly." In 1984, he said of Andrew Peacock: “Put him down like a faithful old dog” and in 2007, for John Howard, it was: “The little desiccated coconut’s under pressure.”

To give Ms Hume her full title, she is Assistant Minister for Superannuation, Financial Services and Financial Technology, and leads the Government’s prosecution on super policy. And to also give Ms Hume full credit, she is giving as good as she gets in response to Mr Keating at the moment, although he no longer has the benefit of a parliamentary display platform to fully perform his tricks.

Jane Hume and Paul Keating are kicking around a favourite political football, superannuation, but what's the score at half time?

The scoreboard on early access to super

Treasury initially estimated that $29 billion would be withdrawn from super when the early release was announced in response to COVID-19. With the scheme now extended until the end of 2020, the estimate has been revised to $42 billion. Around 2.6 million people have used the scheme, with 620,000 emptying their super accounts completely. Here is progress to 9 August 2020 according to APRA, reaching $32 billion with the average payment of $7,700 and 97 per cent of applications approved.

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What is Hume versus Keating about?

Wherever Paul Keating goes in politics, controversy and sport are sure to follow. He’s not a man with uncertain views, but nor is Hume a woman afraid to defend her policies.

Here’s the rub. In response to the pandemic, contradicting the previous firm policy to lock up super until retirement, the Government and Hume are prosecuting the view on super that “it’s your money”. That is, people are entitled to access it early if they need to.

Consider this interview with Laura Jayes on Sky News on 21 April 2020.

Jayes: Is there a chance here that if we do see a lot of young people take up this offer of essentially $20,000 of early money from their superannuation, does it weaken the system years down the track and is that just putting off a problem for another day?

Hume: Well, we think people are best placed to make those decisions themselves and you've got to think about the counterfactual. What would be the effect of leaving that money in superannuation but not being able to pay your mortgage, not being able to pay off a credit card, having to sell something like your car just to get by? So it really is a decision for individuals. We're certainly not encouraging people to take up the offer but we're giving them the option to make an assessment about their own financial situation, their own family budgets.

So the money belongs to the investor and if they need it for “their own financial situation, their own family budgets”, they are entitled to have it.

Keating calls this "generational theft". He spoke at a virtual conference run by Industry Super Australia on 4 August 2020:

“It is a breach of the preservation rules to just let anyone take out their money willy-nilly. There has been no scrutiny whatsoever ... The whole point of superannuation was a great public bargain with the community: defer consumption for your working life and you will get a very low rate of tax.”

Keating argued that much of the money was probably spent on discretionary items such as cars, boats and motorcycles, and the long-term savings of young Australians are now compromised. As others have argued, the people who needed money could have been protected by the right fiscal policy:

“Every dollar which came out of young peoples' super balances could have been funded by one press of the computer button at the Reserve Bank.”

Hume responded in interviews and on Twitter, repeating the “it’s your money” mantra.

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In an interview with The Australian Financial Review on 12 August, Ms Hume said:

“The idea that the wagons need to be circled around one sector in order to protect one man’s legacy - especially in a time of crisis - is obscene [and] irresponsible. It demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the system he supposedly set up.”

She argued that access to super had always been available on compassionate grounds. She also criticised the super system generally with another slight at Keating:

“Fees are too high; there are insurances being applied inappropriately that are eroding peoples balances; there are duplicate accounts out there and a tail of underperforming funds; and many of those problems are directly correlated with the origins of superannuation in the industrial relations system.”

Studs up in the tackle, Keating says access is 'willy-nilly' theft and Hume says protecting his legacy is obscene. Who has the scars?

Was access ‘willy-nilly’?

One clear point of difference between Hume and Keating is his claim that locking super away until retirement is severely compromised by the ease of access, whereas Hume argues it was more an extension of the existing compassionate grounds.

Qualifying for early release requires a loss of job or reduction in working hours of at least 20 per cent since 1 January 2020. While this sounds like a high bar, the lax part was not so much these tests but the simple online application process with no vetting.

The ATO confirmed the online access was easy. Second Commissioner Jeremy Hirschhorn told a Senate committee that the ATO did not check eligibility due to the dire circumstances around the pandemic:

"This is about getting emergency money to people. We will never have enough information to reject quickly, we will give people their money on the basis of their say so.”

So the ATO assumed people were honest. Brave. The Government does not trust people for anything relating to social security, where pensioners are subject to close scrutiny and checks. After the initial flurry, the Government issued warnings about compliance and penalties, but it did little to halt applications. Hume continued to defend the system and the applicants, saying:

“Australians who have made the decision to access their super early can rest assured that the Morrison government trusts them. They understand that withdrawing some money now comes with a trade-off down the track—but the decision is theirs.”

This is a long way from the previous tightly controlled compassionate access, to say it’s a matter of trust and “the decision is theirs”. Applicants declared their eligibility on an ATO website to receive payment a few days later from their super fund.

Whatever happened to super’s objective?

Remember the good old days - if 2015 can be called old - when most people supported the objective of superannuation. David Murray’s Financial System Inquiry had recommended that:

“the objective of the superannuation system is to provide income in retirement to substitute or supplement the age pension.”

In October 2015, the Liberal Government announced it would enshrine the objective in legislation, it issued a discussion paper in March 2016 and by November 2016, the Superannuation (Objective) Bill 2016, was introduced.

Then it stalled. The years have rolled by, including regular beseeching to put it back on the agenda, to no avail. We are now further away from defining the objective than five years ago.

And let’s not forget the sole purpose test

To quote directly from the ATO website’s SMSF section on the sole purpose test:

“Your SMSF needs to meet the sole purpose test to be eligible for the tax concessions normally available to super funds. This means your fund needs to be maintained for the sole purpose of providing retirement benefits to your members, or to their dependants if a member dies before retirement.

Contravening the sole purpose test is very serious. In addition to the fund losing its concessional tax treatment, trustees could face civil and criminal penalties.”

That’s unambiguous. The fund is maintained to provide retirement benefits.

What was the money spent on?

The most frequently quoted data tracking the use of early super withdrawals comes from consulting firm AlphaBeta (part of Accenture) and credit bureau, illion. They claim that 40 per cent of people who accessed super early had experienced no fall in their income during the COVID-19 crisis, and only 22 per cent in Round 1 and 24 per cent in Round 2 of withdrawals were spent on essentials. Discretionary items included gambling (11 per cent of money spent) and clothing (10 per cent), while 12 per cent in Round 2 was for debt repayment, as shown below. Hume has disputed these results.

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The ABS has produced separate data on the way stimulus payments such as JobKeeper have been used.

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Notwithstanding the lack of firm evidence, no doubt much of the money directed at retailers such as Kogan and JB Hi Fi, who have experienced rapid increases in sales in recent months, came from both stimulus spending and people accessing their super.

Three implications of the early withdrawals

What are the consequences of this early access? Here are three:

1. Decline in total super in the system in future

Early access to super will compound the adverse impact of COVID-19 on future super balances, with BetaShares estimating the $30 billion withdrawn to date will reduce future balances by over $100 billion:

“An amount between $100 billion and $130 billion represents a very significant future shortfall (which will only increase as further super is released early). It will need to be funded by future Australian governments and therefore the Australian public will ultimately bear the cost, as those who have withdrawn super will be less able to fully fund their own retirement needs.”

Other estimates place this in a broader context of future super reductions due to COVID-19. Current superannuation balances are about $3 trillion, and Rainmaker previously projected retirement savings would reach $10 trillion over the next two decades. Their Superannuation Projection Model has now revised the number to $7 trillion due to the virus, including the impacts of rising unemployment, lower super contributions, lower long-run earnings and reduced population growth.

The early release is only one factor but Alex Dunnin, Executive Director of Research and Compliance at Rainmaker, said:

"This lower projected outlook for superannuation savings could have significant economic consequences on Australia if it is not carefully managed."

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2. Lower personal superannuation balances

Writing in Firstlinks when the early release policy was announced, and assuming savings grow annually at a rate of 3 per cent above inflation less 0.5 per cent administration fees, David Bell calculated the withdrawal of $20,000 has a different impact depending on age. A younger person at 30 loses $50,000 in their retirement balance.

Current age and reduction in retirement balance:

30 - $50,000

40 - $39,000

50 - $30,000

60 - $24,000

The estimates obviously depend on the assumptions and it's easy to derive bigger numbers. For example, BetaShares reports:

"Based on an annual growth rate of 5 per cent plus CPI, $10,000 withdrawn today becomes a $70,400 nest egg over 40 years. When an average annual rate of 7 per cent plus CPI is used, this increases to $149,745."

Either way, the predominantly young people withdrawing their super will miss out on compounding over so many years that their super balances will face a big hit.

3. Changes in the management of large super funds

Large super funds, especially industry funds which rely on large numbers of small investors locking in their super until a gradual drawdown in retirement, must now factor in far greater likelihood of withdrawals. If governments believe "it's their money" then any crisis could lead to further relaxation and access.

As David Elia, Chief Executive of industry super fund, Hostplus, said:

“This has created a form of regulatory risk in the super system that we’ve probably never seen before, and now we’re completely aware of and cognisant of.”

Keating added to his earlier comments that the early access scheme had a "distortionary" effect on investment management by forcing funds to hold more cash.

Industry funds were previously able to hold a higher level of illiquid assets such as unlisted property, infrastructure and private equity than retail funds, and now must be recalibrating their portfolio tolerances for greater liquidity.

'It's your money' versus lockup

Anyone sitting in the ivory tower of a well-paid job and a paid-off mortgage during the pandemic should not judge the struggler who withdraws their super to pay the rent, feed the family or fix the car.

Unfortunately, it is the people with the least in super who are less financially literate who will be left with less in retirement savings. Where the money is used for short-term wants rather than needs, they are doing themselves a disservice. Even if in future they are likely to qualify for the age pension, they should supplement reliance on government support with other assets while drawing a pension. And nobody knows how generous or otherwise the age pension will be 20 or 30 years from now.

Compulsion and tax advantages are usually necessary to make people save for retirement, and Australia has a system recognised as a role model around the world. It included highly-restricted access before retirement, and there will be other crises in coming years where super might be opened again.

Ideally, the Government could have recognised the genuinely needy during the pandemic and set up another scheme to assist them without invading their super. "It's your money" flies in the face of the strict access rules we have accepted since 1992, and many are compromising their future in exchange for current consumption.

This article originally appeared on the website of Firstlinks, a Morningstar company.

is the editorial director of Morningstar Australia

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