Australian Super’s Elephant Gun Problem

Back in 1987, Warren Buffet made the following statement in a letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders: ‘Our basic principle is that if you want to shoot rare, fast-moving elephants, you should always carry a loaded gun …’

Before you gasp in horror, the elephant he was referring to was a metaphor for the purchase of a large business, and the gun meant having the available cash to transact quickly when others cannot, or if there are concerns about the future due to economic uncertainty (such as a share market crash). Historically, Warren has been able to secure such purchases on very favourable terms and a large number of them have proven to be very profitable.

In his letter he went onto say: “If we find the right sort of business elephant within the next five years or so, the wait will have been worthwhile.”

More recently Warren has routinely explained to shareholders at Berkshire Hathaway’s annual general meetings and at media interviews that as a company gets larger, it becomes harder to outperform the market. The company’s 2018 annual report valued its portfolio at around US$172 billion. Yet one only has to look at Berkshire Hathaway’s share price to see it has underperformed on the S&P index by around 15.28% over the past five years. So it would be fair to wonder whether the company is starting to come under some pressure for its performance. It is unclear if this is a long-term trend, or simply that the market has not had a crash for a long time, to allow Warren to deploy his elephant gun.

In portfolio theory we talk about the law of large numbers, and the main reason fund managers that are providing “active management” understand their limitations with the size of assets they actively manage. In a lot of cases, the good ones simply close the fund to new investors at some point as the fund cannot handle unlimited amounts of capital.

There are a few reasons why this law persists in our industry. The first has to do with position size. Let’s take a portfolio worth around $1 million. If you purchase an investment option worth around $10,000 and it goes up by 30%, you might say ‘Hey, what a great return!’ Well, not really. You just gave yourself an administrative stomach-ache. The return, although good, only moved up the value of your fund by 0.3%. As the size of the portfolio gets larger – say $150 billion plus – your ability to buy a large enough stake to make a worthwhile return gets harder and harder.

Another aspect of this law has to do with being able to move capital around in the portfolio. With such massive position sizes it can sometimes take six to twelve months just to sell out, which creates some questions about being nimble in a quickly changing market.

The third reason has to do with inflows. Each year a huge amount flows into Berkshire Hathaway from dividends of listed companies that Berkshire Hathaway owns and all the profits from the private companies they own too. Warren’s company needs to allocate this into existing or new investment options. This growing cash pile can make the situation worse: when there is too much cash not being deployed effectively we call this ‘cash drag’ because it can create a drag on performance returns.

So, what does all this have to do with Australian Super? Well, as at 30 June 2018 this super fund provider reported that they had about A$140 billion or so in funds, which they manage on behalf of members. They also have a huge amount in super contributions coming in, which they need to allocate each year to investment options.

The larger the super funds become should mean some increase in economics with hopefully cheaper fees in the long term based on economics of scale. This would normally be one of the selling points of increasing its size. However, it appears Australia Super did not get this memo, as they had close to doubled their administration fees by 30 June 2019.

The reality is that as these super funds get larger, they start to push the limits of what they can do as an outperformance fund and may simply just track or underperform the respective indexes. It will be just a case of time to see if this plays out.

As you can see, if your money is being lumped into a large pool and yet you are looking for an active management approach, you start to see a clash with these two strategies in the longer term.

So the next time you are thinking about selecting your investment options or a superannuation fund, it is important that you seek quality advice from a practising financial planner and of course, I recommend AJ Financial Planning.

Which would you prefer: a 7% or 12% return on your super?

It seems like a simple enough question. If you had a balance investment option in your super, would you choose a 7% or 12% return? Yet, before you decide it’s a no-brainer, it’s worth probing a little deeper into what could cause this 5% variance, as the reporting returns are not standardised.

Let me explain.

Using the mortgage industry as an example, when you consider look at taking out a home loan, the lender will normally quote two interest rates. The first is the principal interest rate, which might be around 4.86%. However, right next to it will be the ‘principal and interest comparison rate’, which might be around 5.25%.

You might reasonably ask, what do home loan interest rates have in common with superannuation?

Well, home loan providers have historically been really great at disguising the real cost of a mortgage. Even today, they might advertise a very cheap interest rate, but then they load up the product with fees throughout the life the loan, or top and tail it with some expensive loan application or exit fees. A comparison rate was introduced as a way for loan applicants to quickly determine the total costs of a loan, by factoring in most of the fees and charges incurred during the life of the loan. Essentially, it allows lenders to easily make an informed, like-for-like comparison of the true costs of this financial product.

The issue with superannuation is there is no standardised reporting or common ground. Personally, I believe that for the ‘Mysuper’ option, standardised reporting is well overdue. The government introduced these low-cost, default investment products were introduced into the superannuation industry to enable consumers to easily select which investment option might be best for them, given a range of variables.

So, getting back to the 7% or 12% question; it is important that you understand the drivers for such discrepancies. It’s probably time that government decided to introduce changes to avoid the barely disguised tricks of superannuation funds, such as calling a product a ‘balance fund’, but investing the assets at a growth asset allocation (refer to our recent article, Could Your Hostplus Index Balanced Fund be a disappointment?). They might also provide a great return, but then hike up the administrative fee structure and other costs that might not be reflected in the net return reported.

So, similar to the mortgage industry, super funds get up to a number of shenanigans. For financial professionals and expert investors, these are often easily spotted, but to the majority of average, day-to-day investors, it is a bit of a minefield.

I feel that the idea of a comparison rate return is a sensible approach, as if super funds are over-inflating an investment option with risky assets, they would be required to standardise the returns. ASIC and/or APRA could set strict formulas between growth-based assets and defensive assets.

In addition, all funds would be required to adjust their reported return as if the asset allocation was a true balanced investment, which would be 50/50 between growth-based asset to defensive assets. This would mean that investors would have a fairer way to assess the true merits of a super fund, and also be able to have a sensible discussion on their overall net return.

Until this occurs, however, investors will continue to be bamboozled by the returns offered by super funds.

Before selecting an investment option or super fund, it’s important that you seek suitable advice from a qualified, practising financial planner and, of course, I recommend AJ Financial Planning. Contact us today.

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.