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Back to the future with Murray's super objective

In all the fuss over the Financial System Inquiry (FSI) and its 320-page Final Report, one potentially far-reaching theme  has attracted relatively little analysis.

Bang, smack in the centre of the first recommendation of Chapter 2 Superannuation and retirement incomes is the statement that the heart of the system remains the achievement of a retirement income. Recommendation 9 creates a hierarchy of objectives where all other honourable objectives are merely subsidiary to the primary objective:

“The Inquiry’s single primary objective prioritises the provision of retirement incomes and precludes the pursuit of other objectives at the expense of retirement incomes.” (Recommendation 9 – Option Costs and Benefits) (my bolded emphasis).

Straying from super’s primary objective

Most of us in the industry were not conscious of having strayed. The pressure to drift away from this singular purpose has led the FSI to ask for statutory protection to ensure the primary objective is achieved. There is, however, a potential sting in the tail of a law enshrining the primary purpose of superannuation. David Murray clearly wants to guard the system from further political tinkering, but he also appears to be re-focussing trustees by laying upon them a new de facto legal obligation; that is, to deliver income.

What were they doing before that?

The wry answer would be that trustees were busy complying with repeated waves of regulatory change and fending off pressure groups wanting to tap the pot of money for all manner of nation-building projects. While this may be true, the real issue is that the current system treats the accumulation phase as an end in itself. It is this mindset that the FSI seeks to ‘reorient’.

“It will help reorient the community mindset around superannuation, away from account balances and towards the provision of retirement incomes. Nobel Laureate Robert Merton wrote: “Sustainable income flow, not the stock of wealth, is the objective that counts for retirement planning.” ” (Recommendation 9 – Option Costs and Benefits)

Lack of risk pooling

A key argument of the FSI is that the lack of risk pooling has led to an inefficient provision of retirement incomes (see the Executive Summary). Our individual asset accounts are ‘pooled’ only for the purpose of investment and administrative efficiency. Our liabilities, on the other hand, are not pooled. They remain inefficiently distributed no matter the size of the super fund to which we belong. This contrasts with the risk pooling inherent in a Defined Benefit (DB) scheme or an insurance fund where the greater the variety of individuals, the cheaper the cost for all.

In this sense, the current system means our risks are borne by each of us individually and, furthermore, these liabilities are really not the responsibility of anyone other than the individual. No official entity, fund, trustee, regulator or agency has responsibility for achieving or monitoring this. The end result is a retirement system that fails to materially alleviate the burden of the age pension on the Federal budget.

It is ironic that the collectivist instincts that brought about our near universal superannuation system should result in such highly individualised outcomes. As the system matures, we are all becoming aware that this policy objective falls between two stools. David Murray, quoted in Cuffelinks at the SMSF Association (formerly SPAA) Conference, 18 February 2015, said that the FSI saw three objectives of super, one of which was “to improve the government budget position by reducing reliance on the age pension, but this has not happened.”

The FSI seeks, within the present construct of our system, to redress this almost complete lack of official accountability for individual outcomes. At the heart of their response seems to be the message that our trustees simply look after assets and have no direct responsibility to look after liabilities. Why else would they be mandating trustees to add a specific new responsibility of nominating post-retirement products?

Investment programmes for DB schemes place much more emphasis on meeting a specified set of long-term liabilities. The risk appetite of pension trustees in predominately DB countries like Canada, US, UK and the Netherlands is therefore shaped by asset-class behaviour relative to liabilities, and is inherently and overtly long-term. 

Australian superannuation has wrong focus

By contrast, the Australian super industry simplistically defines risk as raw market volatility within reporting periods. Australian trustees are increasingly pre-occupied by competitive product ranking and business considerations such as brand and pricing within the context of peers.

The competitive war between industry funds and retail may be an additional distraction as they reference each other, rather than an overarching immutable single objective. More worrying is that as industry funds shift from the strategies that served them well in the past, increasingly, the investment programmes of the two streams look the same and bragging rights will disappear.

The December 2014 Chant West survey makes the point that retail and industry funds increasingly experience very similar returns and their January 2015 numbers show no evidence of industry funds out-performing in the last five years. That’s half a decade since industry funds delivered a convincing win over their retail competition.

When I returned to Australia in 1999 after a decade managing DB assets in the UK, I saw an Australian industry had blossomed in my absence. Pleasingly, I saw earnest and diligent trustees making, perhaps in a paternalistic way but nevertheless, wise, considered, long-term strategy calls.

However, since the introduction of fund choice in 2005, the old world of long-term investment horizons has been replaced by a more peer-competitive, internally self-referencing industry of ‘products’ designed to do well in their respective Chant West (or other) survey categories. This shift to a short-term retail-ised industry is possibly the ‘account-based’ mentality with which the FSI panel takes issue.

Their proposal is subtle but potentially far-reaching. They propose a system where trustees are legally bound to accumulate super assets for the purpose of achieving a single result; a post-retirement income. As Dr Samuel Johnson said years before the first fleet set sail; “Nothing so concentrates the mind as the hangman's noose.” Will this legal noose cause our DC industry to act more like DB schemes in its investment strategy? Turning back the clock to a collectivist DB risk-sharing system does not seem possible. However, the FSI has sown the seeds of an elegant compromise that might achieve a similar result.


David M Brown is a Senior Advisor at Cambian Corporate Advisory in Melbourne, and a Non-Executive Director at Clearview Wealth. He has managed pension and superannuation assets in the UK and Australia for over 25 years.

David Bell
March 04, 2015


I have some concerns that people’s reflections on the wonders of the DB system are presented through rose coloured lenses. In this case you mention the collectivist approach but make no mention of word “sponsor”. We should never forget that DB funds have an in-built parachute in which the sponsor would magically make good any shortfallings. The main reasons that we no longer have DB funds is that sponsors feared them as an ongoing source of risk and liability.

Lets not forget that DB funds have many times failed their members. And this isn’t new news, rather it is very old news. Jump back to 1963 when Studebaker closed its automobile manufacturing plants in 1963 and 7,000 workers lost virtually all of their retirement benefits.

I think it is important to highlight that there are a whole range of collective pension scheme structures which are not DB funds (because they do not have a corporate or government sponsor). There are many European pension schemes which are collective but there exists no guaranteed outcome. Rather there is an ambition to deliver this outcome but an acknowledgement that the outcome may vary if circumstances do not transpire as hoped. This is how UniSuper’s “DB” fund operates. It is not a true DB fund as there is potentially no guarantee from a sponsor. I must also challenge your view on the reaction to the warning of downgraded benefits. The brochures and posters at university made quite interesting reading…

I think we are now in an exciting environment where, through the encouragement to consider risk pooling in the FSI, super funds have a clean sheet of paper on which to work out what is best for their members. This was the thrust of my previous article – the FSI shouldn’t mandate a product but should mandate (through APRA-based reviews) strong processes for design. Part of that is stepping away from the simplified DB versus DC conversation, recognising that there are many structures and solutions out there, and start establishing processes for determining what is best for the retirement outcome of our members.

Regards, David Bell

David Brown
March 06, 2015

Fair enough - I am not advocating a return to the rose-coloured days of DB - I am simply saying that a focus on retirement income will very probably, and quite logically force a change on the investment strategies currently employed - and it will be trustees who bear the brunt of this obligation to comprehend this. My theory is that they will start thinking more like DB trustees, paying more heed to the liabilities of their members.

I think this would be a good outcome from the FSI - I am concerned that my super fund trustees at the moment have no incentive to look after my interests in terms of delivering a post-retirement income. I am not doubting their personal sincerity - but I am assessing that the current system gives them no incentive or guidance on this important matter, which is, after all, the "primary objective of super" to quote David Murray.

Peter Vann
February 28, 2015

Brent, in our retirement adequacy work, my business partner Chris Condon and I see the initial estimate of a safe withdrawal rate as a starting point.

To expand on my brief comment above, one can then monitor their personal situation on a periodic basis to take account of actual experience due to, inter alia, actual investment experience, actual withdrawal experience, and importantly incorporating one’s changing needs through retirement. This may well result in some adjustments to suggested safe withdrawal rates, and asset allocation to maximise the safe withdrawal rate. Such monitoring can be delivered to a member, or advisor, in everyday language they understand, their “paycheque”, together with enough information to make informed decisions, as envisaged in my quote above from the FSI report. A consequence is that individuals will have their own simple to use and understand personal financial longevity manager without the need for the new complex investment products discussed in the FSI report, and by the Institute of Actuaries.

David Blanchett from Morningstar has written some thoughtful papers on dynamic retirement withdrawal strategies. One practical issue with implementing his work for members is that it uses Monte Carlo simulations which have difficulty handling the “under the bonnet complexity” that enables simple to understand results to be delivered to the end user, or the advisor, in a timely fashion. This is also a problem with numerous US retail based systems which only go part of the way there, possibly due to the limitations from using Monte Carlo simulations. Chris and I have undertaken some internal research using a robust and fast approximate closed form solution we developed to estimate safe withdrawal rates (including retirement income profiles and other flexibility) whilst optionally incorporating the impact of the non-linear Australian age pension on the distribution of retirement outcomes.

A final thought. An engaged accumulation member would also benefit for monitoring projected safe withdrawal rates; the sooner one starts understanding projected retirement outcomes the easier it is to improve that outcome. Again the starting point is getting their attention as per my post above.

David Brown
March 06, 2015

Peter - as you say

"the sooner one starts understanding projected retirement outcomes the easier it is to improve that outcome."

spot on....

I am sure that is the message of this FSI

February 27, 2015

Defined Benefit Funds are disappearing around the world because they were unsuccessful in providing the incomes they promised - and required the companies and governments that provided them to top up incomes to the level promised. Companies and governments in Australia no longer offer defined benefit funds and have passed the income risk to the pensioner through accumulation funds. There is no reason why accumulation funds in the pension phase cannot focus on providing income and asset protection, which SMSF's can do. Retail and Industry Funds may need to change management incentives to become better attuned to the pension phase.

February 27, 2015


I would echo many of your sentiments. One question I do have in the back of my mind when it comes to converting lump sum values to some probability based assessment of "safe withdrawals" is how to actually manage that process ongoing, beyond the initial point estimate.

Many technology solutions would spit out a 'likely' figure and then along side it an estimate of potential income in say "good or bad" market circumstances. The question is how does one actually manage to those estimates, if you know your sustainable withdrawals will be 25% lower in the event of long term poor returns.... what can you actually do with that information? Its not like a capital value estimate, as when you get to your estimation point you have either met it or you haven't. With forward drawdown estimates by the time those returns eventuate, you would have already been drawing in excess of it by targeting the likely outcome. Then you have all the other issues like potentially targeting excessively conservative drawdown levels etc. etc.

Can you perhaps share some references to any decent literature on this topic, as most of the 'safe withdrawal' literature tends to focus on calculating a figure and justifying the calculation, but very little on what you actually do with it in practice.


David Brown
February 27, 2015

Yes - a tough one - I'm not sure any of us fully understand how the post retirement income products will look just yet. I guess I am anchored in my experience with DB funds and the compulsory annuitization they used to have in the UK when I lived there. Actuaries valued the income yield and the assets' ability to purchase bonds to immunize an annuity book. In that case - the "price" of income is a very precise one and one which changes with prevailing long-term bond yields - which don't always move intuitively with the total balance of your assets.

the sort of draw-down policies you describe have some analogy in the copious literature dealing with endowment funds - which seem to adopt very conservative pay-outs - in order to preserve the real value of the endowment. Our " allocated pension" style products might be a bit less accurate in their glide path to "extinction" ...(sorry no pun intended) - anyway - wish me luck in never outliving my super :)

Peter Vann
February 27, 2015

“Back to the future”. David, did you see my “5 retirement myths?” seminars last year?
With reference to the statement “A key argument of the FSI is that the lack of risk pooling has led to an inefficient provision of retirement incomes”, I believe that the inefficient provision of retirement incomes is due to the tenacious focus on asset accumulation whilst essentially ignoring its purpose to support funding retirement expenditure.
Note that the report says ““All members need to understand their projected retirement income to make informed decisions about their retirement savings” and recommendation 37 provides a first step to that goal, i.e ““publish retirement income projections on member statements” .
Imagine what may occur if the industry informed accumulation members where they are heading, i.e. an estimate of a safe retirement income they are tracking towards! Members may actually see what their super means to them, AND in language they understand, their paycheque (i.e. financial literacy is not an issue here). Is it that easy?
Imagine the help it would be to a person just on the verge of retirement if they saw a relatively safe withdrawal amount that their super assets can support. Is it that easy?
Imagine helping a retiree monitoring their safe withdrawal amounts as they progress through retirement, accounting for actual withdrawals and investment returns, they will almost have their own financial longevity manager. This can be provided for the masses at an effective cost. Is it that easy?
Why does it take the FSI to kick start this straightforward task? I answered that in the first paragraph. By the way, I haven’t mentioned any specific new investment products to achieve this, it is not a pre-requisite as it is a technology solution.

David Brown
February 27, 2015

Peter - a man after my own heart...! I didn't see your "5 retirement myths" - shame.

It is also telling that the proposed Unisuper cuts to DB benefits (a couple of years ago) did not raise alarm across the Australian industry - Unisuper had/has solid and respectable performance against peers - so if their DB members have their benefits cut - then so too - by logical extension - would the rest of us in every other super fund....


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