Date posted: 29/05/2017 3 min read

Are SMSFs losing their lustre?

Self-managed superannuation funds (SMSFs) have been embraced by Australians, but are they damaging Australia’s robust superannuation system?

In brief

  • SMSFs now make up 99.7% of all superannuation funds in Australia.
  • The desire for more control over superannuation assets is driving significant growth in SMSFs.
  • In the not-too-distant future there will be tens of thousands of SMSF trustees in their 70s, 80s and beyond, which will present many risks.

It’s been said there are no certainties beyond death and taxes. Even the latter appear to be truly optional for many large corporations, high-net-worth individuals and the growing number of citizens inhabiting the cash economy.  

However, there is a third certainty, namely the enthusiasm with which Australians embrace self-managed superannuation funds (SMSFs). The statistics are remarkable. SMSFs, of which there are over 600,000, now account for more than 99.7% of all superannuation funds, over 30% of superannuation assets and contain an average balance of over A$1m.  

What is driving this astounding growth? Could it be the generous tax breaks? I suggest not. After all, the same tax breaks apply to the superannuation system as a whole, not just to SMSFs.  

The desire to control

Thirty years of experience observing and advising thousands of superannuants has convinced me that it’s all about a desire to exercise control. This often misguided and irrational desire has never diminished and there are no strong signs that it will do so any time soon.  

Over the three decades since the inception of this form of superannuation, clients have rarely needed any convincing about the merits of establishing a SMSF.  

The days of the A$30m SMSF are over and so they should be.

By the time they consult a financial adviser or an accountant, many have already persuaded themselves that they can achieve a better rate of return than the “professionals” and that even if they can’t, at least the money will be kept out of the hands of the “forces of darkness” (the financial institutions) whom they love to hate.  

Even when a superior return is not achieved, it makes no difference. Clients want to keep control at almost any cost.  

This amazing phenomenon has given birth to an industry within an industry, representing the so-called “SMSF sector”. The new industry contains articulate and well-funded lobby groups claiming to be professional associations supporting the public interest, while enthusiastically promoting the merits of SMSFs over any other form of superannuation.  

Exploiting the Australian dream

In the most recent decade, we have seen the rise of “SMSF educators” whose principal purpose appears to be to convince hapless (and poorer) members of the public to use SMSFs to gear into the great Australian dream on the basis that real estate is always a winner.  

This inexorable growth has somewhat disturbed the traditional superannuation industry, principally inhabited by large financial institutions operating retail superannuation funds. Initially, their reaction was to criticise SMSFs as irresponsible tax avoidance schemes which were risky for members and regulators alike.  

However, in recent years, realising that they couldn’t beat them, they’ve joined them, buying ownership in existing SMSF advisory and administration firms or establishing such a service from scratch. There’s considerable irony here because many fiercely independent clients have ended up in the commercial clutches of the very institutions that they were so carefully seeking to avoid in the first place.  

So where does the industry go from here? There is no doubt that recent legislation moderating tax breaks at the high end has taken the edge off superannuation as a vehicle for the rapid accumulation of vast sums of tax effective savings which may be passed on to the children.  

The days of the A$30m SMSF are over and so they should be. Once its consequences filter through to the general public (for example, the A$25,000 cap on concessional contributions) the legislation may impact, possibly heavily, on the SMSF sector in terms of a diminishing growth in numbers established.  

Having said that, reports of the death of SMSFs have been greatly exaggerated on many occasions.  

Therefore, making a prediction about their imminent demise would be premature, such is the desire by members of the public for direct control of their superannuation savings and the unlimited creativity of advisers in working out ways to use and abuse the system.

The dementia epidemic and financial control

How capable is an ageing population of making complex financial decisions, and what happens when cognitive abilities decline?


The challenges lie in the risks

The real challenge to the viability and credibility of the SMSF sector is twofold. First is the ability of trustees to legally borrow (gear) in order to buy real estate and other assets, such as shares.

There is the risk of elder abuse by professional advisers and relatives seeking access to the large sums of money that are typically held in SMSFs.
This law, which the Murray Financial System Inquiry wisely recommended be repealed, introduced a significant element of unnecessary investment and regulatory risk into the system.  

The second is much greater, but is rarely discussed because its consequences are enormous and a politically-acceptable solution is not obvious. The issue is the ageing cohort of SMSF trustees and their diminishing ability and enthusiasm to manage and control their superannuation affairs.  

In the not-too-distant future, there will be tens of thousands of SMSF trustees in their 70s, 80s and beyond.  

This presents risks at many levels. There is the regulatory risk that trustees will fall short in their compliance obligations. That’s the least of our worries.  

There is also the risk of poor investment decisions caused by incompetence and diminished abilities. And then, sadly, there is the risk of elder abuse by professional advisers and relatives seeking access to the large sums of money that are typically held in SMSFs.  

These risks, particularly the latter, are not simply theoretical. They are a real and present danger, as acknowledged by the Australian Law Reform Commission.  

They are not a case of something that may happen. They will happen. I confidently predict that unless we urgently develop and implement public policy responses to stop them happening, these risks will result in scandals and personal tragedies.  

The problems will be widespread and will seriously damage the robust superannuation system that has been developed in this country since the 1980s. And that’s not to mention the billions of dollars in cost to the taxpayers to remedy the situation.  

I do not claim to have all the answers to this challenge, but express the hope that an urgent conversation might be started in the industry to offer solutions before extensive damage is done. This is one subject in which the financial services industry has the practical experience and knowledge to make a meaningful contribution to public policy development without waiting for government to act through legislative amendments.  

Thankfully, on this unusual occasion, the public interest and the commercial interests of the industry are aligned. So there’s no excuse to avoid the conversation which will only become more difficult, emotional and costly the longer we delay having it.