Are industry super funds headed for an asset allocation disaster?

AJ Financial Planninginvesting managed fund superannuationAre industry super funds headed for an asset allocation disaster?

Superannuation funds within the retail and industry super fund market usually offer ‘balanced’ or ‘growth’-based investment options. But what does this really mean; and aren’t these funds all the same?

On 31 May 2017, Vanguard’s Balanced Index Fund reported an allocation to growth-based assets of 49.9%.

Over the years, my interpretation of a balanced profile for an investor has been fairly similar to Vanguard’s 50/50 position; that is, one’s holdings are fairly equally split between growth-based assets and defensive assets. The question is, are industry super funds applying the same principle or, more importantly, are they headed towards an asset allocation disaster?

Recently I reviewed Catholic Super’s asset allocation, and I discovered something interesting. Delving into the target’s asset allocation for a ‘balanced’ fund I noticed a 70% growth-based assets allocation. This is a massive divergence from Vanguard’s recommendation, not to mention any number of portfolio theory textbooks. It made me wonder, has Catholic Super’s marketing department ‘mislabeled’ this investment option?

When reviewing Catholic Super’s strategic asset allocation, I also noticed that growth-based exposure was sitting at around 74%, if you included the ‘defensive alternatives’. If these alternatives are removed, it pushes the exposure up to 81%, as it is unclear exactly what these might entail.

Australian Super’s ‘balanced’ option appears to be in similar territory. When I looked at the mix of assets, if credit, fixed interest and cash are included as defensive assets, then growth-based exposure sits at 73%.

Neither Catholic Super nor Australian Super provide a date reference for these asset allocations on their respective website, so these percentages may have changed since they were originally published. It’s reasonable to assume, however, that both Australian Super and Catholic Super are taking a tactical asset allocation position – but have they reasonably exceeded these boundaries?

For years now, industry super funds have been reporting strong returns above those of their peers. The question must be raised, therefore, have these funds’ marketing divisions been pushing up returns by ‘mislabeling’ investment categories in order to attract new investors? Of greater concern, though, is whether these funds are potentially exposing investors to far more risk than the labels may imply?

So, let’s go back to the Vanguard Growth Index Fund reported on 31 May 2017. The index presently sits with a maximum range of exposure for growth-based assets at 72%.

You might ask, does having a larger exposure to growth-based assets matter? Doesn’t it mean higher returns for the members of the super fund and everybody is happy?

The short answer is: volatility and market downside. These factors make it very difficult for an investor whose risk profile is balanced to ensure they are matched carefully with the right exposure for their risk tolerance.

So, who has got it right? Vanguard, or the industry super funds? Which asset allocation really is ‘balanced’?

As Warren Buffett famously said, ‘Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.’