How property spruikers target SMSFs

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Most of this article was originally published in 2013, but it is reprised here due to ASIC’s Media Release of 28 June 2018 advising of the inadequacy of much SMSF advice. ASIC targeted using SMSFs for property investing, after its staff had gone ‘underground’ at seminars. This article focusses on the experience at such a spruiking session. ASIC said in its release:

“ASIC also found some people had moved to SMSFs as a way to get into the property market, and were using it solely for this purpose without a wider investment strategy.

The interviews also identified a growing use of ‘one-stop-shops’ where the adviser has a relationship with a developer or a real estate agent whose products the person is encouraged to invest in. This put people at increased risk of getting poor advice that did not take account of their personal circumstances or is not given in their best interests.”

Attending an SMSF property seminar

There are many property companies and real estate agents running seminars targeting SMSFs. The property agents issue emails to people who have visited one of their displays or responded to an advertisement. To quote from an email from one of the largest real estate companies in Australia:

Worried you won’t have enough when you retire? Find out how you can utilise your existing superannuation to buy your next investment property. The presentation will provide insight into SMSFs and how they can help you create a brighter future for you and your family. According to the ATO’s most recent SMSF bulletin, 3,000 SMSFs are being established every month, that’s 100 daily and around 4 every hour!”

The seminar is held in the offices of the real estate company, and each session is packed. On the night I attend, extra lounge chairs are brought into the room, and it is standing room only at the back (near the bar). The clients are of all ages, including some surprisingly young couples. The real estate agent welcomes the crowd, says he will talk about some specific properties later, and then introduces the main speaker. We are told it’s an amazing presentation that will blow us all away.

The main speaker is from an SMSF administrator. He’s got quite a patter. First he tells us, “Those in the front row may need an umbrella. I tend to spit a lot”. I look at the real estate man to see if he is cringing in embarrassment, but he thinks it’s very funny. Then we’re told some surprising statistics. We don’t need much super to buy a $1 million property. 72% of SMSFs plan to buy property at some stage, and 92% of them plan to borrow. 86% of people prefer property to equities. In the near future, $500 billion will move into property from SMSFs, and one-third of all property will be bought by an SMSF. He tells us he has a telescope that can see into 2020, when we will be printing human organs to put into the body. And this telescope tells him there will be $3 trillion in super and the market capitalisation of the ASX will be only $2 trillion. The balance must find a home. In fact, the government introduced borrowing in super to encourage purchases of property. So this is going to be an LRBA night. That’s Limited Resource Borrowing Arrangement, because that’s how SMSFs buy property.

We are told there is a financial planner at the back of the room who any of us can talk to later.

The presentation makes the following points:

1. Using property, you can take control, diversify and stop managed funds and market fluctuations affecting your families (sic) financial future.

In fact, it couldn’t be less diversified. Residential property is one single, illiquid investment. How is it diversified? Because the rent covers the interest expense on the loan, leaving money for other assets. Oh, that’s fine then.

2. There’s an ability to use leverage in super that cannot be accessed through ‘normal’ superannuation.

What is this, ‘abnormal superannuation’? It is possible to leverage into other assets in super, although maybe not to the extent possible in property.

3. Use your limited super as a deposit.

The transaction example uses $140,000 of superannuation (“maybe take it out of an industry fund”) to buy a property for $500,000. Then when you sell it for $1 million ten years later when you are ‘only’ 55, you will be in pension phase where there is no capital gains tax. No mention that it might not suit you to enter a ‘transition to retirement’ pension for other reasons, or that for many in the room, the pension age is 60 and not 55.

It gets even better. If you don’t have enough money in super but you have equity in your house, you can borrow against your house and lend the money to your SMSF under an LRBA.

4. You can reduce the purchase price of the investment property by 40% using concessionally-taxed superannuation compared to after-tax salary for loan repayment.

The ‘reduced purchase price’ comes from the tax-effectiveness of superannuation, not property. Every investment is 40% lower on this basis, plus the fact that there is a $25,000 a year limit on concession contributions. That’s not much for a property deposit.

5. If you don’t have enough money for a deposit, four people can pool their money to fast track to wealth, allowing increased exposure to property assets.

So now someone with a really small amount in super, plus three of their friends, can leverage into property.

And on it goes. The numbers are wonderful. The money that buys the property does not incur any income tax, and there’s no capital gain on sale. Only an SMSF allows you to avoid tax like this, it is ‘below the tax line’. You would be ridiculous to buy property outside an SMSF, because for your $140,000 deposit, you need to earn $261,682. It’s so much cheaper in the SMSF. You save $514,429 over the life of the property investment.

The structure can be put together for a fee of $7,995 for the complete package of legal work setting up the SMSF, establishing the trust deed plus independent legal financial (sic) advice. When you check their website, where they promote their services to real estate agents, you see the ‘wholesale price’ is $5,000. The rest is the agent’s commission. In fact, allowing for referral fees and insurance premiums, an agent can earn $5,700 on an average SMSF package attached to a property.

It’s been quite a spiel, and the property agent is welcomed back to the microphone to offer a “grab bag of gold nuggets”. These are various property developments around Sydney. And at the end, the financial adviser offers his services to anyone who wants to talk about SMSF strategies.

What does the licencing process seek to achieve?

Is that what the licencing process intends, that as long as there is a licenced adviser in the room, everything is fine? To quote again from Peter Kell: a person requires an AFS licence if they recommend that an existing or proposed member of an SMSF purchase a property through their SMSF.” At what stage is the licence required and when does the financial advice begin?

It’s an irresistible combination for a marketing person based on four massive numbers: $4 trillion in residential housing, $1.5 trillion in superannuation, $500 billion in SMSFs and one million trustees, many of whom are far more comfortable with bricks and mortar than they are with shares and bonds. Throw in an ability to borrow in the SMSF and an industry that has never taken a backward step in seizing an opportunity, and residential property in self-managed super has become part of every real estate agent’s kit bag.

When borrowing was allowed by SMSFs in 2007, did the regulators expect an industry to develop that encouraged leverage of four times the value of a superannuation balance? Superannuation has tax advantages to encourage people to save for the years when they cannot earn an income. Let’s hope Australia does not have a property price fall anywhere near the size of countries like the United States and Ireland, or a lot of retail superannuation money will be lost.

At least most SMSF trust deeds have provisions to cover member insanity.

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7 Responses to How property spruikers target SMSFs

  1. Gen Y July 12, 2018 at 12:56 PM #

    Blind Freddy has seen this happening for the last 5 years, but when do ASIC act? Once the boom is over. Just like storm post GFC, the regulator who is meant to protect consumers comes in when all the damage is done.

    I’ve had non finance friends sucked in by these scams, ending up with a crappy off the plan apartment in Hicksville… it’s a disgrace.

  2. Carikku July 12, 2018 at 2:50 PM #

    And what happens when the SMSF is left with a property that has dropped in value meaning the members don’t have enough assets in their fund to cover what their balance should be? Can they sell it or does that mean the fund becomes non-compliant? Or does it mean they get blacklisted as trustees? Are they forced to hold onto the property in order to avoid this?
    Does anyone know?

    • Jason July 13, 2018 at 6:25 PM #

      There are no “should be” balances in super, SMSF or otherwise. If the investment value declines their balance falls, just like any other super fund.
      They can do whatever they want with the property, as they are the trustees. Having crappy investments is unlikely to lead to a fund being non-compliant. The amount of borrowings are limited for the purpose of reducing the likelihood of negative equity.
      As for the trustees getting blacklisted, its their money, their fault and they have no one to blame but themselves. That is the nature of a SMSF.

      • SMSF Trustee July 15, 2018 at 8:31 PM #

        Except that a super fund is given a tax advantage to encourage it to be used to provide a secure retirement income. In my view, people should be somehow required to be prudent and sensible, not high risk, to enable that.

        Take high risk – including concentrating a portfolio in a property – outside the tax advantages super regime.

  3. Chris July 16, 2018 at 10:16 PM #

    How does the math work (or supposedly work) for point 4? I’m not seeing it? (Well, I think I see it, but it’s a silly way to look at the numbers.)

    • Graham Hand July 16, 2018 at 10:26 PM #

      Hi Chris, it was their argument, not mine, but I suppose it’s the difference for someone in the top tax bracket between:

      1. After-tax money outside super used to buy a property. Earn $100, pay $47 tax, put $53 into a property, versus

      2. Money in super used to buy a property. Earn $100, pay $15 tax, put $85 into a property.

      Difference $85 and $53 for a property spruiker is $32, and $32/$85 is nearly 40%. Like I said, their story.

      • SMSF Trustee July 17, 2018 at 9:13 AM #

        It’s wrong of them to say that this ‘reduces the price’ of a property. The logic behind the argument is valid, but it’s being deceptively applied.

        Super, being tax advantaged, does result in a high tax bracket investor who puts savings into super rather than keeping it outside the system has more wealth than they otherwise would have had. This is the kernel of truth that the spruikers are drawing on.

        But whether they buy a property or some other asset, it’s exactly the same. In your illustration, Graham, earn $100 and put either $53 into cash, shares or bonds versus putting $85 into any of these. To say that it ‘reduces the price of the property’ is a deliberately misleading statement, meant to imply that this works for property but not for anything else.

        Why are property people allowed to get away with these sort of half-truths and misleading statements, when anyone in any other part of the investment industry would have their licence taken away?

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