A triple threat for retiree super

The post-retirement phase was largely overlooked in development of Australia’s current super system. Industry and government must quickly step up to fix this dangerous oversight.

The release of the latest Melbourne Mercer Global Pension Index earlier this month, once again confirmed Australia as having a world class retirement system, coming in third out of 20 countries behind Denmark and the Netherlands.

But read past the rankings in this comprehensive 74-page report and there is a strong warning about the risks facing Australian retirees in the post-retirement or decumulation phase. This is an area that was largely overlooked as our system evolved from employer-sponsored, defined benefit schemes to defined contribution arrangements. To date, most of the focus has been on the accumulation phase of superannuation, but that’s changing as more baby boomers enter retirement.

In the past, employees lucky enough to be in a defined benefit scheme (and the majority weren’t) were guaranteed a retirement pension traditionally linked to their years of service and salary. But with the advent of compulsory superannuation in 1992 and defined contribution schemes, the onus shifted to the individual to be responsible for their retirement income.

What do these retirees seek? The report identifies the ongoing financial needs of retirees as a "trilemma" which includes:

  • Good investment returns and investment choice;
  • Protection from myriad risks – including investment, sequencing (poor returns immediately before or after retirement), longevity, inflation, expenditure and time (or interest rate), counterparty and liquidity (remember, behavioural finance risk shows individuals are far more sensitive to losses than gains, a characteristic particularly pertinent to retirees);
  • Access to some capital during retirement to cover unexpected expenditures, such as medical.

Quite obviously, this combination of different needs facing individuals over the course of their retirement means there is no ideal solution. Even an indexed annuity will not meet every individual’s varying financial needs during their different stages of retirement.

This is indeed a complex problem and the best solution for any individual will depend on a range of factors including their total wealth, health and likely longevity, required standard of living, access to the age pension, etc. At the same time, the needs of individuals must be balanced with the public interest so that clear incentives are in place to encourage personal responsibility and avoid over-reliance on the public purse.

For the industry, legislators and administrators, how to solve the trilemma will be the issue in the coming years. So what’s required? The industry needs to provide the right products for an income stream – a portfolio of products that meet individual needs. This portfolio should include features such as:

  • Limited access to the lump sum on retirement;
  • Some access to capital to allow to meet unexpected expenses;
  • In the early stages of retirement, an income product to provide adequacy and security;
  • A pooled insurance-type product to provide longevity protection for later years;
  • A structure that allows for phased retirement as people continue to work part time.

People need to be educated about retirement, in particular the need to focus on consumption and not investment; it is a quite different phase to the accumulation stage. Research shows that people are typically happier in retirement, but in the immediate years preceding it worry about what will happen and, significantly, often fail to plan for it. The onus has to be on superannuation funds to invest more resources in educating their members about retirement – to literally change their mindsets.

For this to happen the government of the day has to articulate the main objectives of the retirement income system (including the role of the pension). It’s an issue that will encompass social, economic and tax policies and will require strong leadership, coupled with an energetic public debate, to ensure we get the policy architecture right.

Ideally, while the issue can’t be ignored, any policy changes regarding post-retirement income for DC funds will involve an inclusive public debate and a gradual introduction to allow those affected to adjust their expectations and make long-term plans.

Australia has an enormous opportunity to build a world-class decumulation system that gives individuals security and flexibility in retirement. But it will not be easy. The media furore and public angst that preceded the Labor government’s April 5 statement this year when changes to the tax laws governing superannuation were being mooted highlights the political difficulties. But the longer we delay this debate, the harder it will get – politically, socially and economically.

Professor Deborah Ralston is executive director of the Australian Centre for Financial Studies, which publishes the Pension Report in conjunction with Mercer.