A new way to beat Centrelink’s Age Pension assets test limit?

Centrelink’s changes to the Age Pension assets test limit in January 2017 cut off access to the Age Pension for many retirees, when the maximum value of assets owned to obtain the age pension was reduced.

If you’re a retiree and this affected you, you are probably still seething about it. Or, if you are about to retire, you might have only recently discovered that you exceed the asset test limit.

Well, 1 July 2019 might just turn out to be the answer to your problem – provided you are smart with the structuring of your financial position.

Let’s recap quickly. Back in January 2017, the Australian Government decided to reduce the asset test limit that Centrelink uses to calculate eligibility for the Age Pension, from $1,175,000 to $823,000 for a couple who own property. For a property owner who is single, this went from $791,750 to $547,000. Note, however, this asset test limit excludes the value of your primary residence and since then, the asset test limit has been indexed, so today it’s sitting a little higher than these amounts.

For a lot of people who sat close to these limits, they lost access to the Age Pension. The government did provide some grandfathering relief, with a cut-back version to try to prevent Armageddon for retirees, but anyone else just turning the qualifying age for the Age Pension was left in the dark.

Let’s jump forward to 1 July 2019. What’s about to change? Well, the government has amended its superannuation and tax legislation, and part of the new measures that have been released include a range of options for retirees with retirement income streams.

Like most things, with changes to superannuation, old ideas have an uncanny habit of reincarnation. Here’s an example: The Transfer Balance Cap of $1.6 million introduced on 1 July 2018, was really just a new version of the old Reasonable Benefit Limits, which used to be in place back in the pre-Howard era – with a few variations.

Today, the asset test exemptions with the Age Pension, which back then applied to guaranteed lifetime annuities, is making a comeback with a fancy new name: ‘Pooled Lifetime Income Streams’. Welcome back, old friend, it is like it is the year 2000 all over again!

Now like any reincarnation, or as any great tech entrepreneur will try to convince you, this time is it is ‘new’, ‘improved’, and ‘different’. Not really. To be honest we liked the old version, but like any Apple or Microsoft upgrade, we learn to live with the new version, despite transition frustrations.

So, what does this all mean?

  1. If you sit close to the Age Pension asset test limit and you invest a portion in one of these new, bright shiny ‘income streams’, then this could allow you to claim a 60% reduction of the Age Pension assets test limit, depending on a range of factors that you need to meet.
  1. Will this income stream product ever expire? If you manage to hang around as long as one of my favourite sea creatures, the sea turtle, who lives up to 150 years, you will continue receiving an income stream that massively outweighs the money you spent on buying this product. The money just keeps coming in the door and never runs out. We might not be able to match the sea turtle in terms of life expectancy, but if you do have a history of longevity in the family and are likely to live longer than the average life expectancy age, this might be a worthwhile consideration.

So, what are the downsides? Any money you put into this product you may end up saying ‘Adios’ to; it is likely you will never have access to this capital again, and your estate will receive zip too. So there will likely be a need to balance these combined objectives.

The great news is, there are some solutions.

Like any great newfangled investment product or idea, it is really important you don’t dash out and try to do this yourself. This area of investment is incredibly complex and a massive amount of modelling and analysis needs to be done. So before you jump into a change in strategy, I recommend you dust off that Y2K era Motorola Razor mobile phone and give AJ Financial Planning a call.

How to beat regulators on the $1.6 million cap limit on superannuation

If you have more than $1.6 million in super, presently you might find that you are unable to make any further after-tax contributions (non-concessional contributions) into your super.

This cap limit is based on a per person limit and was introduced as a result of the government’s idea of restricting how much one person can have in their super at retirement at a reduced tax rate of 0%.

In essence, if you have $1.6 million in super and are drawing an income stream, you might find that this is taxed at a 0% tax rate on any income, capital gains or earnings within the super fund. Any amounts that sit above this limit of $1.6 million could be taxed at 15%.

This legislation was introduced to target people who normally squirrel away larger amounts into super in the lead-up to retirement.

We often find a lot of people who are 50 years or older naturally start to think about super and retirement, and tend to stuff larger amounts into their super in the lead-up. This legislation acts as a natural headwind to this late ‘mercy dash’ towards retirement saving.

So, what can be done about this limit if you find you are hitting the $1.6 million brick wall?

Here are a couple of suggestions:

  1. The cap relates to $1.6 million per person, so if you have a partner who sits under this cap you could simply push some of your funds over to them. To do this, however, a range of complexities must be considered to see if you can step through this door.
  1. Starting early can help, too. If you think about how much you will put into super over your working life, for most of us there is a ‘bulge’ at the end, due to rapid savings that take place in the years approaching retirement. By smoothing the contribution amounts over a longer time, it allows you to maximise the power of compounding this capital. Simply by starting contributions earlier could allow you to smash through the $1.6 million cap limit without breaking a sweat. Of course, before you jump into this option you need to consider the trade-offs, such as less access to capital or paying off your mortgage sooner.

These are just a couple of options we look at when coming up against this problem. We often use a range of other solutions for clients who are contemplating this issue.

Like any tax problem, remember what Kerry Packer famously said:

“I am not evading tax in any way, shape or form. Now of course I am minimizing my tax and if anybody in this country doesn’t minimize their tax they want their head read. As a government I can tell you you’re not spending it that well that we should be paying extra.”

Unlike the complex tax problems of a billionaire such as the late Kerry Packer, however, this strategy is fairly simple in comparison: to simply achieve the objective of eliminating the possibility of 15% tax being paid on your superannuation.

Like any great investment or retirement planning strategy, before you jump in and try to do this yourself, please seek professional guidance from a suitably qualified financial planner and, of course, I recommend AJ Financial Planning.

What next for Australian property?

There have recently been many articles in the media regarding changing property prices. Unlike shares, which can be accurately tracked day-to-day, property is historically an opaque market with less visibility on price movements. However, over the past few years computers with sophisticated programming have been able to track property markets more accurately and provide an increasing level of transparency. This has led to a range of property research reports providing up-to-date information on the markets and as a result, this information has flowed through to media publications reporting ‘booms’ and ‘busts’ that now rival the extremes previously associated with the share market.

Over the years I have often heard people say, ‘Oh, property always goes up’. So, when this recent downturn occurred it might have come as a surprise to some. In fact, these days we are reading or hearing about people who have purchased property, held onto it for five to 10 years, and seen little or no capital growth. And this isn’t just in one market; it’s in growth corridors, large high-rise developments, in different states and territories, metropolitan, regional … Clearly, the good old days of property being a ‘sure thing’ are now long behind us.

The graph below shows ‘Real Residential Property Prices for Australia’.

As you can see, we have experienced downturns in property for the following periods:

1. Q4 2003 – Q3 2005

2. Q4 2007 – Q1 2009

3. Q2 2010 – Q3 2012

4. Q2 2017 – ???

Interestingly, most of the pullbacks have lasted on average around two years. Historically, each pullback has ranged between –3% to –8%. And as household debt levels have slowly risen over time, so too have the more serious repercussions of the downturn for homeowners. It’s worth remembering that the most valuable lesson in leverage is that it can magnify the upside, but also the downside. Early drawdowns were around 3–4%, while more recent ones have been around 8% as household debt has spiralled upwards.

In recent times, we have been alerted to a reduction in borrowing capacities. This was first reported earlier this year by UBS analysts, as banks slowly changed their borrowing assessment methodology to consider individual spending patterns rather than applying a basic assumption of living expenditure. This has led to a potential reduction in borrowing capacities of around 20–40%, to around 80% of the mortgage market being serviced by the major banks.

So, what does all this mean? Well, a person on a gross income of $150K can now borrow around 34% less than before, and is effectively limited to a loan of around $538K.

Coupled with the impact of a slowing source of overseas buyers, we can see why recent moves in property prices have taken place.

How far will this drawdown go? Well, each state, city, region or suburb is unique in its own price movements; however, I would not be at all surprised if we find these overall figures continue to at least a 10% drawdown before this latest down-cycle is complete.

It’s important to realise that in property, as in all markets, a pullback doesn’t mean there won’t be opportunities. It is likely, however, that simply throwing money into the property market with a view to making a profit is going to be more challenging. We need to be a lot more selective in acquiring property and also the decisions we make around the timeframes for holding periods.

Like all great investment ideas, before you consider purchasing property, it is important that you seek out and obtain profession financial planning advice from a practising financial planner and, of course, I recommend AJ Financial Planning.

Does your retirement super need to be ‘Zengosaidan’?

I often like to read ‘peculiar’ books that give me some insights into different ways of thinking. I recently came across a book review in The Monocle Minute. It inspired me to buy the book: A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind by Shoukei Matsumoto (Penguin Books 2018). Now, I am not Buddhist, but I did find this little book an interesting read. In particular, it spoke about the concept of Zengosaidan, which is defined as ‘… a Zen expression meaning that we must put all our efforts into each day so we have no regrets, and that we must not grieve for the past or worry about the future … Don’t put it off till tomorrow …’

I found this idea thought-provoking – particularly when I consider my daily work, which is retirement planning. Because at some point, most people in Australia will stop working and retire. For a lot of them, they will need an asset base to fund this stage of their life. Best-case scenario, they will be 100 per cent reliant, or partially reliant, upon these funds.

However, despite this reality many people drift through life without placing much emphasis on, or at least paying attention to, the preparation required for saving for later life.

Now, I am not saying everybody needs to become an expert in retirement planning. I think the important distinction is we should become engaged with our impending retirement and ensure that when the day arrives, we have no regrets.

We often take a ‘no regrets’ approach to life experiences such as holidays, ticking off the bucket list or achieving other major lifetime goals. However, shouldn’t we be turning our attention towards what steps might need to be taken to ensure that our retirement savings are maximised during our career and particularly in the lead-up to retirement?

Today, the only discussion we often hear about retirement is having ‘no regrets’ about spending the kids’ inheritance and driving off into the distance.

It’s probably time this conversation matured.

I think this philosophy of ‘no regrets’, or Zengosaidan, needs to be front of mind as we approach retirement. For example, consider the following mental checklist:

  • Do you have enough to live on in retirement – for the whole of your retirement?
  • Have you maximised all possible options within your retirement strategy to ensure that you are well placed when you retire?
  • Looking at your retirement picture, what are the financial trade-offs if you make particular financial decisions today?

Believe it or not, virtual reality can make this process a lot easier. In a few years’ time I will be able to sit with a client, get them to put on a virtual reality headset, and then pull up a picture of what they might look like at retirement age. This might help them appreciate what they need to do to help the older-looking them in retirement. Potentially, we can create a real-live model of what retirement will look like if they do nothing, compared with what it will look like if they put into action the recommended steps to maximise their financial position opportunities.

Until this technology catches up with us, though, we will need to use our own imagination for the time being. I think, however, it is important that you keep in mind the following: When you stand at the threshold, about to take the leap from your working life into retirement, and reflect on what you have achieved, you want to be confident that you have optimised your financial situation, so the next chapter of your life can be everything you wished for and more.

Like all great ideas, it’s important that when you think about retirement planning, you don’t go it alone and seek advice from a practising and suitably qualified financial planner and, of course, I recommend AJ Financial Planning.

Could your Hostplus Index Balanced Fund be a disappointment?

Around $2.5 billion has reportedly flowed into the industry super fund Hostplus in recent times. This influx of funds has largely been on the back of media commentators promoting Hostplus, in particular its Hostplus Index Balanced Fund.

My understanding is that the main thrust for this investment boost was on the back of lower fees and the merits of index investing.

We recently had a client who, after reading media commentary, wanted to move their funds from another industry super fund into the Hostplus Index Balanced Fund. Their existing fund’s fees were 0.19%, while the Hostplus Index Balanced Fund was reportedly charging a low-cost fee of 0.07%. But was switching funds the right decision?

Does the argument start and finish with fees and does index investing mean a better result? To get an overall picture, let’s compare the performance of the Hostplus Balanced Fund compared to the Hostplus Index Balanced Fund. As both are reportedly ‘balanced’ funds (refer to our article ‘Industry funds headed for an asset allocation disaster’ https://www.ajfp.com.au/2017/07/17/are-industry-super-funds-headed-for-an-asset-allocation-disaster/), if these products are true to label, then it should be a fair comparison.

At the time of writing this article, the Hostplus website reported the following performance returns, net of all investment and administration costs.

It is important to note that historical performance is no guarantee of future performance. However, over time it might given an indication of the level of competence of the fund’s managers and the soundness of their investment strategy. Unfortunately, 10-year figures were not available for the Indexed Balanced Fund and are therefore not included. But I believe seven years is a reasonable timeline to afford some sensible analysis.

If low fees are the only matrix for success, then why is this not reflected in the end result – net performance over the longer term for the investor?

In fact, over the shorter, three-year period the performance variance between the two funds was 2.71% p.a. So while investors saved 0.99% in fees, they potentially gave away 2.71% in returns. Assuming a super balance starting point of $100,000, if this variance continued at its present pace, over an investor’s working life it could result in a total loss of return of around $171,839.

In short, when considering investing in a superannuation fund, you need to factor in all the elements. At a minimum, these include the ongoing costs of the fund, and the net return on a like-for-like basis. There are plenty of low-cost super funds around, but very few actually produce a decent return. And while performance is difficult to gauge, competence and quality of management can sometimes be illustrated over the longer term.

Like all sound investment decisions, it is important to seek professional guidance from a practising financial planner. Contact AJ Financial Planning today for a chat.

AJ Radio – Episode 19 (Recorded 24th July 2018)

In this 19th Episode of AJ Radio we crack open a segment of the investment market that was once thought perhaps to be a trivial area. Now, with a projected 2.3 billion people participating in this area of the market and a forecasted spend of $137.9 billion in 2018, this area of the market is no longer a niche player.  This episode takes a closer look at what is transpiring in this exciting video game market and the opportunities it presents for investors.

Is it better to retire on a $350k super fund, or a $900k super fund balance?

When it comes to retirement most people believe more is best, but is this always the case? Have the Centrelink changes that came into effect last year distorted reality; has the $350k super fund become the new $900k – without all the extra effort of squirrelling away so much for retirement?

Let’s assume we know two couples who are about to retire. One couple has a balance of $350k; the other has $900k. Both couples want a modest living standard in retirement, with an income stream of around $50k p.a.

The first couple with a combined balance of $350k can expect to receive an income stream of around $21,000 p.a. Potentially, they might also receive the Age Pension if their combined assets – excluding their home – sits under the threshold of $380,500. The projected Age Pension is likely to pay them a combined income of $35,573. Thus, they will end up with a total combined income of $56,573. It is likely that at a 6% drawdown rate, their superannuation will not be eroded too fast, so it should be possible for them to keep pace with inflation during their remaining lifetime.

In addition to receiving the Aged Pension, this couple will also receive all the benefits and concessions that normally come with it, such as discounts on utilities, medicines, etc.

The second couple has a combined super balance of $900k. Like the first couple, they own their own home. But as their combined asset balance exceeds the maximum Centrelink threshold of $837,000, they are not eligible for the Age Pension.

This couple will commence an income stream from their superannuation balance and, assuming a similar 6% drawdown limit, they will be eligible to draw a combined retirement income of $54,000 p.a. If their super fund’s performance remains reasonable, this should also last them until life expectancy and keep pace with inflation.

However, being over the Centrelink threshold means that this couple is not eligible for any of the discounts and benefits that normally accompany the Age Pension, although they will also not be affected by any government changes that might occur in the future to Centrelink thresholds.

They could also draw down a higher income stream earlier in their retirement, to enjoy travel and entertainment, etc. Then as they age their need for cashflow might not be as great, so they can gradually ‘ease off the throttle’ and reduce their balance to the $350k mark, and be in a similar situation to the first couple.

So the next time you are feeling a little underwhelmed about your retirement picture, it’s important to give consideration to all options that might be available to you. Sometimes, bigger may not be better. Or, you might be better off sitting at the $900k balance, possibly spending the difference on home improvements, travel, a new car etc. Later you could drop to the Age Pension limit, and even if you receive just $1 from the Age Pension, it still means you qualify to enjoy the other benefits that come with this government offering.

Before delving into a retirement strategy, it’s important you take your personal situation into account and seek advice from a qualified financial planning professional. Of course, we recommend AJ Financial Planning.

AJ Radio – Episode ​15 (Recorded 17th October 2017)

In this 15th Episode of AJ Radio we discuss retirement. Specifically, we explore what you should do if you don’t have enough money for retirement, and what are the steps you could consider taking to handle this situation. We also give a quick update on the speculative and very interesting cryptocurrency market.