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Super's hidden delights

Ever noticed that the only thing that your superannuation disclosure materials don't actually tell you about is what you actually own? Or what your fund has actually purchased on your behalf?

Ever noticed that the only thing that your superannuation disclosure materials don't actually tell you about is what you actually own? Or what your fund has actually purchased on your behalf?

Deluged, as we are, with glossy governance guff, the closest you get to finding out what you own is a mingy old asset allocation break-down: 30 per cent fixed interest, 40 per cent Australian equities - that sort of thing. Whether those equities are mining stocks, the best performers last year, or banks or construction companies, you're in the dark.

And if your resources portfolio happened to contain BHP or You Beaut Dodgy Minerals Exploration Limited - again, too much to ask. We are privy, thankfully, to the names of the other external funds to which our fund managers have farmed out our super, after clipping the ticket. But again, these outsourced funds don't have to disclose either.

Yet the investments which do deliver a return, a dividend, a capital gain or a yield, rather than a cost - we're not entitled to see that. It's just another of life's ironies.

This may all change soon. Under consideration by Greg Medcraft, the new chairman of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, are plans to bring disclosure on underlying fund investments. The funds will whine black and blue, citing the burden of disclosure. They buy and sell all the time, of course. But a snapshot of fund investments would hardly be too onerous to include alongside peppy, pretty faces of model family pics and picket fences.

Which brings us to a Morningstar report rating Australia second last in a 22-nation study on fund disclosure. Ominously, the rankings are redolent of a bookmaker's field for the looming rugby World Cup, yet in reverse.

When it came to disclosure, Sweden, the US and Canada topped the field while South Africa, Australia and New Zealand came last, in that order.

"The vast majority of the countries in our study require full and complete disclosure of portfolio holdings," Morningstar says.

"Most countries require funds to publish investment holdings either quarterly or semi-annually, but we find a majority of funds in India and Norway provide full portfolios monthly. Only Australia and New Zealand do not require portfolio holdings information."

Go India!

It should be noted that when it comes to fees and charges, Australia romped in at number one, grading A for expense ratios.

On regulation and taxation however, Morningstar graded us a D, noting: "Australian investors suffer some of the highest investment taxes of any country ... with the maximum marginal tax rate on income, dividends, and capital gains at a stiff 37 per cent.

"Few countries in this survey echo Australia in taxing fund investors for capital gains earned within the fund annually, as opposed to deferring such taxes. Australia's regulation is better than its tax policy, but is not outstanding."

On disclosure, we were shellacked by China, Taiwan, Europe, the US and even Thailand. Hence the regulator's gaze is now shifting to disclosure on what our superannuation managers have actually bought.

Got a complaint? You'd hardly be human if you didn't.

Here in the Fourth Estate, we get more than our fair share. But we also get complaints about complaints. Complaints, for instance, from aggrieved investors who have dusted their savings in some dodgy scheme, complained to a regulator such as ASIC, and got no joy.

And so it was that we received a complaint about a complaint to a complaints service the other day, to the Financial Ombudsman Service no less.

Hmm, what was this FOS, this seemingly governmental resolver of complaints? Upon inspection, we discovered that it was a private company limited by guarantee. But wait! Is not an ombudsman a government official appointed to investigate complaints, as the dictionary suggests?

Not in this case. Some 30 per cent of FOS's funding derives from the big banks. Much of the rest is pro rata - you get complaints, you fund FOS. The very recipients of the complaints finance the complaints service. There is nothing especially radical about this.

Industry self-regulation is commonplace. We journalists, for one, have our Press Council, if you'd care to complain. Liquidators have their Insolvency Practitioners of Australia. Good luck complaining to them! Lawyers have their Law Council. You'll need a miracle to achieve satisfaction there.

And we haven't really got a complaint to make about FOS in these pages, except to say that it is a cheek of them to deploy the word "ombudsman" in their title.

Ombudsfolk are not common. It would be rare to hear little Johnnie telling his vocational guidance class that he had his heart set on being an ombudsman when he grew up.

A final word: in light of the origin of the funding of private sector services, and this goes for many an industry regulator in varying degrees, complaints are more likely to be treated as vexatious whingeing than bona fide grievances - but that's life.

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