A pause for reflection

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After many years in the hurly burly of Australia’s rapidly evolving superannuation system, seven months in the UK have given me an opportunity to ‘catch my breath’ and listen to a diverse range of viewpoints from international funds and managers. Visits to the US, Europe and Asia meeting various PRI stakeholders has given me a wider perspective of international developments and a better understanding of where Australia is placed on the global stage.

Recognition of strong retirement incomes system

Throughout my travels, the key strengths of Australia’s retirement incomes system are both widely recognised and a model for emulation. An early start on universal mandating of employee contributions, strong regulatory and governance systems, a robust mutual sector, healthy competition at the consumer level, a public policy focus on outcomes and intermediation over commercial interests, and continued development of expertise in funds management, place the Australian model in a league of its own.

For a young country with a retirement incomes system still decades away from maturity, there is widespread recognition of what has been conceived and achieved in just 30 years. Our peers also admire that Australia has both the political foresight and means to increase its savings pool to 12% by 2020 while other countries wrestle with deep and pressing economic challenges.

Australia’s steady ascent through international league tables in national savings and adroit sidestepping of the GFC is also admired. Local funds are now amongst the world largest and enjoy increasing international exposure. The growing profile in funds management, particularly infrastructure is also being noted.

Focus on sustainability and fiduciary duty

What is puzzling to many of our international friends however is the continuing and polarising domestic debate about climate change. Despite some local beliefs to the contrary, the world has moved on. Discussion often centres on sustainability risks and fiduciary duty, understanding the international trend towards carbon pricing and the impact this will have on returns and asset values, and assessing carbon exposure in various portfolios and asset classes over the longer term.

Economic volatility, improvements to global investment governance to reduce the risks of instability and achieving sustained returns for members overlay with climate concerns. As a recent report from AXA Investment Managers noted, over the next 10 years, ESG considerations, socially responsible investment and impact investment are set to spread more deeply from equities portfolios to property, infrastructure, and other asset classes.

So it is with some trepidation that I have watched the apparent hardening of out-dated attitudes in the run up to our national election, and subsequently.

From the flexibility of Opposition, the launch of emissions trading trials in China in June and the commencement of the South Korean trading scheme in 2015 can safely be sidelined, as can the existing market based emissions schemes in New Zealand and California. For a newly elected Government taking office this month in the world’s 12th largest economy, the reality of our major Pacific Rim trading partners in pricing carbon cannot be ignored.

Also on the domestic front, recent confirmation of a ‘Son of Wallace’ inquiry into financial services, creeping ominously in scope to include superannuation, raises the unwanted spectre of ongoing regulatory instability. The sometimes obsessive focus on the mutual fund sector and its successful model of member-focused governance fuels suspicion that under the guise of competition a giant ‘land grab’ to benefit established and powerful vested interests is part of an unseen future agenda.

It must be remembered that the fundamental public policy objective of Australia’s superannuation system is not competition but maximising member’s retirement benefits. The nation’s future demography that first drove the establishment of our universal system from the late 1980s has not changed.

Encouragingly, flexibility and member choice now exist, as the rapid growth in the SMSF sector demonstrates. A healthy and competitive market dynamic with multiple players at a consumer and retail level has been created. This sits in sharp contrast to the increased concentration and market domination that has been hallmark of our banking sector and other parts of the financial services industry in the last two decades.

The longer view 

As Australia’s savings pool grows well into its second trillion, macro reforms aimed at increasing the internal efficiency of investment markets and raising the proportion of capital allocated to productive investments over short term trading, speculation and arbitrage are worth pursuing by any new government.

Aside from the national dividend this would generate, measures that ameliorate volatility and over-concentration on financial engineering align with the desire for longer term thinking around capital utilisation amongst institutional investors and responsible corporations.

Internationally, pension and mutual funds looking well into this new century see sustainability and environmental risks emerging in a range of investment considerations. Externalities are increasingly being brought to book in both the boardroom and balance sheet, sometimes abruptly, as global insurers and re-insurers will attest. The challenges are profound, for funds and managers everywhere. Australian funds and trustees, asset consultants and managers face a delicate balancing act in assessing sustainability risks and value drivers over their traditional investment horizons and beyond.

Looking to the 2020s and 2030s is no longer a blue sky exercise in a multi-trillion system: it is a necessity. For the new Government, sailing resolutely and indefinitely against international winds on climate and carbon may not be the best approach.

Australia’s retirement incomes system has been buffeted by international events and a rigorous period of reform. It is time to adapt to the changes in the pipeline and a measured consideration across the industry of the new environmental, social and governance (ESG) tools and thinking. Responsibility also comes with government. Coalition voices in favour of moderation, national interest and a traditionally cautious approach to radical change in retirement policy need to be both heard and supported.

It is the industry’s task to reach out and find those voices.

Fiona Reynolds is the Managing Director of the United Nations-supported Principles for Responsible Investment Initiative (PRI), appointed in February 2013. She is the former CEO of the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees (AIST).  

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