Super funds: the smaller they are, the harder they fall
Good old Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen didn't much like the prospect of good Queensland superannuation money being managed by a bunch of southerners back in the 1980s. So, whereas construction workers outside Queensland might typically be a member of the $19 billion C-Bus, in Queensland they are more likely to be members of the much smaller Brisbane-based BussQ.
Good old Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen didn't much like the prospect of good Queensland superannuation money being managed by a bunch of southerners back in the 1980s. So, whereas construction workers outside Queensland might typically be a member of the $19 billion C-Bus, in Queensland they are more likely to be members of the much smaller Brisbane-based BussQ.Despite some consolidation over the past decade, there are still almost 400 industry, corporate, retail and public sector superannuation funds regulated by the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority.And despite the rapid growth of self-managed super funds, it is in these APRA-regulated funds that the bulk of Australia's $1.4 trillion of superannuation money is held.The Catholics have got a $4 billion super fund and the Lutherans and the Uniting Church each have (smaller) funds.The canegrowers and the truckies also have modest funds.Then there is the troubled Bookmakers Superannuation Fund with total assets of more than $100 million. Investors with the misfortune of having pension funds stuck in its illiquid investment strategy racked up a 29 per cent fall in the value of their investment in the 2012 financial year, on top of a 19 per cent fall in the 2011 finan-cial year.The fund's investment manager, Joseph Palmer & Sons, which can trace its history back 140 years, said realisation of mortgage assets in the portfolio remained extremely challenging. "Each property is potentially for sale but the process will take a long time to complete as buyers are scarce," it said.At its simplest level, superannuation is a tax structure. Increasingly, personal wealth is going to be held through this structure, yet the understanding of it by the public is appalling and too many people in the industry think this is a good thing.There are about 31.3 million member superannuation accounts. The average balance in a retail account is just $24,500 and the average balance in an industry fund just $21,900 - clearly not enough to retire on.But industry restructuring is gathering pace.A recent report suggested that about half the subscale funds are already in talks with rivals about mergers, or developing closer relationships to share management and advisory services.One sticking point is that the funds often don't like each other and some industries don't like the prospect of having money under the influence of unions.As is this country's way, no ideal industry structure has been enunciated, but Jeremy Cooper, the author of a key industry report, has noted that any fund with $2 billion or less under management is "clearly" too small. "And even a $20 billion fund, certainly globally, is really just not a player," he said.The federal government's Stronger Super changes are hastening consolidation, knocking it into a shape that APRA will feel more comfortable regulating.The Stronger Super changes will promote the automation of the sector's transactions, permit mandatory consolidation of individual accounts, and see the introduction of low-cost MySuper accounts.The country's biggest industry fund, AustralianSuper, is often heralded as the blueprint for the future of the industry. Last week, AustralianSuper unveiled plans to build an internal management team as its next initiative to reduce costs and boost returns to members.AustralianSuper is growing rapidly, with $46 billion in funds under management expected to increase to $100 billion by 2016 - the result of employer and member contributions, market returns, and merger activity. But its challenge will be to remain close to its members, despite having about 2 million of them. Some see the likes of AustralianSuper morphing into an AMP or a bank-like institution.Some in the industry wonder whether a concentrated industry with, say, 10 AustralianSuper-like players is best for Australia's ambition of becoming a hub for financial services in the region.One issue is that the bigger a fund gets, the more difficult it is to outperform the market - encouraging the fund to invest more money in passive investment strategies.One thing is certain and that is AustralianSuper is more professionally run than many of the largely unregulated 442,528 self-managed superannuation funds supposedly overseen by the Australian Taxation Office.But that's another story.Stewart Oldfield is a research analyst at Investorfirst Securities. firstname.lastname@example.org