Super funds to face greater public scrutiny

Yes, journalists do get things wrong, and I was recently reminded of one of my bigger clangers by a letter from shareholder activist Richard Talbot, complaining about his lack of rights in regard to his super fund.

Yes, journalists do get things wrong, and I was recently reminded of one of my bigger clangers by a letter from shareholder activist Richard Talbot, complaining about his lack of rights in regard to his super fund.

Talbot says he was appalled to find fund members do not have the right to attend annual general meetings, vote for the fund's trustees or directors or, indeed, to question how the fund is run.

It brought to mind a column, written for a long-dead business magazine not long after the introduction of compulsory super, that predicted that within a few years super funds would be subject to the same levels of disclosure and scrutiny as listed companies.

It seemed like a fait accompli. After all, if employees were going to be forced to put 3 per cent of their salary into super - and, yes, that was 3 per cent - they should be able to hold the people managing that fund accountable. Yet 20 years on, member apathy and vested interests in the super industry have led to the situation where we're now going to be forced to have 12 per cent of our salary put into super and the regulators and industry are only just moving towards some basic disclosure standards. While there have been improvements, some super funds are every bit as opaque as they were in the 1990s.

Talbot's frustration was with First State Super and not being able to have his say on issues such as the unauthorised release of the personal details of thousands of fund members last year and former HSU boss Michael Williamson's position on the trustee board. (Williamson has since stood down.)

Talbot says he wrote to the fund inquiring about members' rights to attend an AGM or vote for directors, and was told they didn't exist.

As Talbot wrote to Financial Services Minister Bill Shorten: "The directors of most employer-sponsored public offer superannuation funds are appointed by the employee and employer bodies representing the membership of the fund.

There is no provision under these arrangements for a general meeting of members to vote on the removal or appointment of a director. They don't even have an annual general meeting. All you can do if you don't like the fund or what it is doing is to quit the fund and take your money elsewhere." To Talbot, this reeks of a closed shop for union bosses, but industry funds are by no means alone in this regard.

Indeed, when it comes to disclosure, many industry funds provide more information than funds run by the big banks and retail fund managers about who is on the board and who they are representing. The problem isn't an ideological one confined to a part of the industry. It is simply that super funds just don't do shareholder-style democracy. And change occurs much more slowly than this commentator, at least, expected.

As part of its super reforms, the government has given the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority new standard-making powers that will allow it to lift the bar in areas such as fund disclosure.

It currently has on issue 12 draft standards, some of which deal with how and when funds should disclose things such as who is on their board, how many meetings they've attended, how much they're paid, and who they are representing.

The standards will also cover disclosure and treatment of conflicts of interest.

The Australian Securities and Investments Commission is also working on forcing super funds to disclose their portfolio holdings so members can see where their money is invested. Legislation passed this week also identifies the duties of super fund directors and imposes new obligations on trustees to put their members' interests first.

But there will be no requirement for members to have a greater say via AGMs or direct elections.

AGMs were raised in the Cooper review into the super system, but have not been legislated - largely due to logistical issues. Apathy is also an issue. With the majority of fund members totally unengaged with their super, higher priority was given to protecting the uninterested than promoting activism.

Of course, some funds have already picked up the shareholder democracy ball and run with it.

While many trustee directors are directly appointed by employer groups or unions without any input from members, some are directly elected by the membership and accountable to them.

Similarly, many funds hold annual briefings where members can learn more about how their money is being managed and ask questions. Australian Super, for example, has been holding an annual briefing for more than six years in Sydney or Melbourne and webcasting it for those who can't attend. At the height of the global financial crisis, about 450 members turned up to the Melbourne briefing. More typically, attendance is about 200-300, with about half that number attending online.

Members are given the chance to ask questions formally, or informally over nibbles after the briefing. Reportedly, board members who attend also find the exercise informative.

Similarly, an Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees survey last year found some funds are already providing detailed disclosure of key information, in some cases exceeding the proposed new standards. But others are doing a poor job. By giving APRA the power to enforce standards, the government is hoping disclosure will be uniform and members will find it much easier to compare funds.

The chief executive of AIST, Fiona Reynolds, says the super industry needs the same level of public scrutiny as public companies, and many of the new measures should be in place from July next year.

Of course, super funds are not public companies and there will be some differences, but it is not unreasonable for members to expect to be given as much information as they want about the who, how and why of their fund's management. We've finally made a start on that process. Let's hope it doesn't take another 20 years to get to the end of the road.

Twitter: @sampsonsmh

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