Beware super surprises

The rich may not be the only ones to be hit by Canberra's tax tinkering.

The rich may not be the only ones to be hit by Canberra's tax tinkering.

HIGH-INCOME earners and possibly those with large superannuation balances frequently referred to as the 1 per cent may have to rethink their personal finances if the federal government tinkers significantly with superannuation in the budget.

There is no doubt the government plans to claw back revenue through a change in superannuation tax treatment. And there seems to be uniformity among the pre-budget leaks that one area up for grabs is the 15 per cent concessional rate at which contributions, over the 9 per cent paid in by employers, are taxed.

This will affect many more than the top 1 per cent as plenty of Australians make top-up contributions. But it could provide juicy revenue for the government without annoying its heartland voters. While limiting or eliminating concessions on super contributions would be unpopular, the real sleeper would be an attempt to change the 15 per cent tax on earnings inside super funds.

Budget leaks on this possibility are not so firm. While Canberra has clearly thrown the idea around, it is no certainty. But the impact of such a move is great and high-income earners would have to think twice about topping up their super until there is budget clarity.

If the government increases the tax on income inside super it could be done only on larger balances and may not be applied to lower-income or even middle-income earners with lower balances.

One effect that an increase on the tax rate of income in super funds would be that funds would be diverted into investments that still attract some tax benefits. The most obvious is the franked dividend.

Whether inside or outside the umbrella of super, listed shares that provide fully franked earnings have the potential to be far more attractive. This is because those investments that do not deliver tax-free income in super funds, such as bank interest, would benefit from the franking credits on shares by offsetting more of the higher tax rate. This could push up the prices of high-yielding, fully franked shares.

The downside to investing on yield, which is a function of dividend over share price, is that the share price could be low because of the high risk associated with future earnings.

Among the high-yielding stocks are some of the riskier players such as Myer, David Jones, Pacific Brands, Specialty Fashion Group and Tabcorp.

But there is also a group of stocks with less volatile earnings that sits among the high yielders. The top 30 with fully franked dividends include Telstra and the big four banks.

Those at the very top of the wealth pile can put up to an additional $450,000 over three years into superannuation but this doesn't attract any concessional tax rate. The government could try to reduce this amount.

There is no real political downside in damaging the top 1 per cent of earners, who could ultimately abandon super. The mere and constant threat of unfavourable changes to the tax treatment has already prompted a reluctance by some high-income earners to put fresh funds into super.

An adviser with an investment banking firm that specialises in the affairs of wealthy individuals told me his firm had been telling clients for years to avoid saving via super and structure their affairs around trusts.

The practical problem with attempting to target the highest-income earners is that they will find more tax-effective ways to invest. The middle-income earners who do not have million-dollar balances in super may end up being collateral damage.

IT IS early days in the Peter Slipper affair, sufficiently so that it is hard to get a sense of whether Andrew Wilkie's attempt this week to reinvigorate his plan on pre-commitments in gambling will find support either with the government or the opposition. But it is worth having a watching brief on companies that would be affected by a Wilkie win.

James Packer's Crown was active in lobbying against Wilkie. Crown's Melbourne and Perth casinos would be negatively affected. It is one issue on which Packer would be in agreement with the board of Echo Entertainment, whose earnings could also take a hit. It has casinos containing pokies at the Star in Sydney and Jupiters in Queensland.

Woolworths has a huge number of machines in its Victorian pub business, thanks to winning the gaming licence from Tatts and Tabcorp. Aristocrat could be a short-term beneficiary if Wilkie was successful as many poker machines would need to be replaced.

There are plenty of moves left in the game of political chess being played, thanks to the allegations against Slipper. Wilkie is back in the game but it remains to be seen whether he can extract a win.

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