THE head of the federal Treasury has warned that self-managed super funds have become so popular that they could soon begin to test the integrity of the country's superannuation system.
Dr Martin Parkinson says investors need to understand that, while self-managed super funds (SMSFs) might offer more flexibility and potentially greater returns, they can also carry greater risks.
Managers of super funds needed to ensure that they were offering investors "value for money", a concern that had "clearly been a driver" of the growth of self-managed funds, he said.
"SMSFs have an important place in the market for those investors wanting control over their investments," Dr Parkinson told the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia conference on Wednesday.
"However, this flexibility raises some issues for all sectors of the industry to consider ... [in the future] greater transparency on the implications of operating a SMSF will be important, as will be the increased accountability requirements of SMSF trustees."
The architect of the superannuation system, former prime minister Paul Keating, also attacked super fund managers for investing too heavily in the stockmarket. Mr Keating said Australians expected unrealistically high returns from their super funds, which in turn encouraged fund managers to take too many risks.
He also called for an increase in super fund contributions, of 12 per cent to 15 per cent, but he said the additional contribution should be placed in a long-term, government-run fund and devoted to healthcare.
This was necessary, he said, because people were living far longer than was expected when the superannuation scheme was set up.
"Instead of 15 per cent wage equivalent going simply to retirement accumulations, managed by the private funds management industry, I'm suggesting that an alternative may be 12 per cent under the SG [superannuation guarantee] being managed privately and 3 per cent collected under a modified SG being managed within a government longevity insurance fund," Mr Keating said.
Australian super funds had about 2 times the exposure to the stockmarket as European schemes, making them too exposed to the most volatile asset class, he said.
Fund managers reaped benefits in the form of increased fees when their investment decisions performed well, but were not exposed to any risk when the market plunged. "This is pretty squalid," Mr Keating said.
Both sides of politics, together with business and unions, needed to join together to redesign the super system to cope with an ageing population, he said.
Mr Keating praised Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and shadow treasurer Joe Hockey for supporting the Gillard government's move to increase super contributions from 9 per cent to 12 per cent.
"The question is, is it enough? The answer is, no," he said.