Full disclosure

A proposed change would force super funds to tell members precisely where their money is invested.

A proposed change would force super funds to tell members precisely where their money is invested.

When David* sought advice from a new financial planner, one of the first things the adviser wanted to know was what the communication manager's existing investments were. David knew he was in the "growth" option of his super fund but he couldn't detail the specific assets behind that label.

Which stocks did he own with his superannuation money? Which fixed-interest securities? Would he be doubling up if the planner put him into Woolworths corporate bonds or bought more bank shares?

The advice firm's paraplanner set out to track down the information. It took a few weeks, many phone calls, and even a one-on-one discussion with the chairman of the super fund to get the amount of detail they wanted.

David's experience isn't unique. The chairman of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, Greg Medcraft, himself expressed frustration last year that he had been unable to elicit more detail on his investments from his super fund.

Like others, Medcraft was surprised to find there is nothing to compel a fund to provide this level of detail to members.

"The investor has the most skin in the game, so they should be entitled to know where their money is actually invested," Medcraft told a recent conference of superannuation fund trustees as he outlined proposals now before Parliament that would bring Australia closer to overseas practice on disclosure.

If the legislation is passed, trustees will be required to publish details of portfolio holdings on their fund's website twice a year - within 90 days of the June 30 and December 31 reporting dates.

The plan is for the rules to formally take effect from July 1 next year, although funds won't have to publish the first set of data until they pass the December 31 reporting date.

This compares with the practice in the US, where managed funds give investors full disclosure on a quarterly basis, within 30 days of the end of a quarter.

The chief executive of the Financial Services Council, John Brogden, says the industry is working with the government and regulators on exactly what form this new reporting will take at a practical level.

The council welcomes the proposals, in principle.

"People should be more engaged with their superannuation investments, particularly as we move from 9 per cent to 12 per cent super contributions by 2020," Brogden says.

"Many people don't pay attention to their superannuation investments until they start thinking about their retirement - often in their 40s or 50s - or when their super balance starts to become more substantial.

"[But] Australians have $1.4 trillion invested in superannuation and this will grow to $5 trillion by 2030. Transparency around what they've invested in is critical."

The Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia also welcomes the proposals for full disclosure, though the chief executive, Pauline Vamos, says care will be needed to make sure the information is provided in a meaningful and user-friendly way.

"Transparency, so members really understand where their money is, is very important," she says. And the technology is there to allow this to happen fairly easily.

"The most important thing, though, is that there are too many examples where disclosure has been so regulated, it hasn't been useful."

Vamos is impressed with one example of user-friendly portfolio disclosure in the US, where the fund's website has a range of coloured "buttons" signifying different types of investment. The more intense the colour, the greater the proportion of the fund that is invested in that asset class.

Members can then click on that button to open up more detailed information on the investments within those asset classes. "You get the information to the level you choose," Vamos says. "That's what's important here. Technology is able to be used to provide information to consumers so they can cut it any way they want."

Is there any concern that having more information may tempt members to fiddle unnecessarily with their investment settings, rather than leaving them to do their work over the medium to long term?

Vamos says industry research doesn't suggest that. "People are more likely to switch if they have no idea what's going on because the fear factor kicks in," she says. "The more you know where your money is and what it's being invested in, the more confident you are."

*Not his real name.

Key points

- Super funds do not have to detail individual investments.

- Legislation before Parliament would require full disclosure every six months.

- Disclosure should allow better decision making.

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