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Designing a world-class post-retirement system

The release of the latest Melbourne Mercer Global Pension Index earlier this month once again confirmed Australia as having a world class retirement system, coming in third out of 20 countries behind Denmark and the Netherlands.

But read past the rankings in this comprehensive 74-page report and there is a strong warning about the risks facing Australian retirees in the post-retirement or decumulation phase. This is an area that was largely overlooked as our system evolved from employer-sponsored, defined benefit schemes to defined contribution arrangements. To date, most of the focus has been on the accumulation phase of superannuation, but that’s changing as more baby boomers enter retirement.

Onus has shifted to the individual

In the past, employees lucky enough to be in a defined benefit scheme (and the majority weren’t) were guaranteed a retirement pension traditionally linked to their years of service and salary. But with the advent of compulsory superannuation in 1992 and defined contribution schemes, the onus shifted to the individual to be responsible for their retirement income.

What do these retirees seek? The report identifies the ongoing financial needs of retirees as a 'trilemma' which includes:

  • good investment returns and investment choice
  • protection from myriad risks – including investment, sequencing (poor returns immediately before or after retirement), longevity, inflation, expenditure and time (or interest rate), counterparty and liquidity (remember, behavioural finance risk shows individuals are far more sensitive to losses than gains, a characteristic particularly pertinent to retirees)
  • access to some capital during retirement to cover unexpected expenditures, such as medical.

Quite obviously, this combination of different needs facing individuals over the course of their retirement means there is no ideal solution. Even an indexed annuity will not meet every individual’s varying financial needs during their different stages of retirement.

This is indeed a complex problem and the best solution for any individual will depend on a range of factors including their total wealth, health and likely longevity, required standard of living, access to the age pension, etc. At the same time, the needs of individuals must be balanced with the public interest so that clear incentives are in place to encourage personal responsibility and avoid over-reliance on the public purse.

Features of a world-class portfolio for retirees

For the industry, legislators and administrators, how to solve the trilemma will be the issue in the coming years. So what’s required? The industry needs to provide the right products for an income stream – a portfolio of products that meet individual needs. This portfolio should include features such as:

  • limited access to the lump sum on retirement
  • some access to capital to allow to meet unexpected expenses
  • in the early stages of retirement, an income product to provide adequacy and security
  • a pooled insurance-type product to provide longevity protection for later years
  • a structure that allows for phased retirement as people continue to work part time.

People need to be educated about retirement, in particular the need to focus on consumption and not investment; it is a quite different phase to the accumulation stage. Research shows that people are typically happier in retirement, but in the immediate years preceding it worry about what will happen and, significantly, often fail to plan for it. The onus has to be on superannuation funds to invest more resources in educating their members about retirement – to literally change their mindsets.

For this to happen the government of the day has to articulate the main objectives of the retirement income system (including the role of the pension). It’s an issue that will encompass social, economic and tax policies and will require strong leadership, coupled with an energetic public debate, to ensure we get the policy architecture right.

Ideally, while the issue can’t be ignored, any policy changes regarding post-retirement income for DC funds will involve an inclusive public debate and a gradual introduction to allow those affected to adjust their expectations and make long-term plans.

Australia has an enormous opportunity to build a world-class decumulation system that gives individuals security and flexibility in retirement. But it will not be easy. The media furore and public angst that preceded the Labor Government’s April 5 statement this year when changes to the tax laws governing superannuation were being mooted highlights the political difficulties. But the longer we delay this debate, the harder it will get – politically, socially and economically.

Professor Deborah Ralston is executive director of the Australian Centre for Financial Studies, which publishes the Pension Index in conjunction with Mercer. Article reproduced with permission from Professor Ralston.

Andrew Baker
November 01, 2013

Is the "trilemma" really what members want in post-retirement? This is difficult to observe because we are dealing with the decumulation phase of a mature defined contribution system and there are few other examples to examine.

However the behaviour of SMSFs, where there is already a substantial decumulation segment suggests something rather different. Their accumulation strategies appear to have a strong flavour of assembling a semi-permanent and growing income stream - consider the heavy allocations to dividend paying equities, deposits, and increasingly to real estate (small commercial in particular). Despite being a generalisation, this behaviour appears to be sustained into decumulation.

Annuities is another approach of course, albeit much less popular and coming with balance sheet risk and lower returns for the guarantee.

SMSF is actually a pretty good environment in which to manage this type of strategy as the (hopefully growing) income stream can be directly observed and tracked. Compare the opaqueness of collective funds in this sense - how can you tell what sort of income stream your account is generating? Peter Vann is on the money in this sense.

Collective funds do need to do a lot of work in this area. Professor Ralston proposes quite a complex solution set of multiple income products ... I wonder if this is optimal. Frankly I would be pretty happy if my fund could start with better transparency and information on my account's income generation ability and growth over time.

Ramani Venkatramani
October 30, 2013

Unexceptionable points, Harry.

To move to a viable solution and turn around the existing leviathan of our DC regime, built on compulsion (soft and hard in contribution), fund and investment choice, we should debate what must give. Otherwise the problem will remain too hard. Electoral cycles do not align with visionary long term clean-up.

Some options:(None easy)
1. restrict ability to use super as an estate planning device
2. rethink the unlimited family home exemption from Centrelink / CGT
3. review inheritance and gift taxes
4. rectify the asymmetry of parents being liable for children, but not children for parents ( the latter shifted to Joe Tax-payer), learning from Asian values
5. basic longevity cover from the taxpayer (now implicitly provided through unfunded age pension).
6. mandate income streams above a basic level
7. punish white collar crime as hard as assault and murder, not with the current 'wet towel' enforceable undertakings (the 'won't do it again' sentence)
8. co-opt members into greater involvement
9. risk review SMSFs
10. when advisers refer to acting in members' interest, let this allude to fund members, not the card-carrying members of their clubs (aka professional bodies) subject to Omerta, as at present.

Will the offspring of Wallis rise to the tasks? Can hope trump experience?

Harry Chemay
October 30, 2013

The superannuation system is ill prepared for the coming 'decumulation tsunami'. In part the reason is systemic. With the intro of mandatory employer contributions in 1992 the initial focus fell understandably on the accumulation phase. The debate gravitated toward retirement adequacy from a lump sum perspective. The "how much super is enough?" question. There it has stayed ever since.

A schism exists in the understanding of risk as between trustee and member. Trustees view risk via a text book definition of volatility (standard deviation). Members see risk as a failure to generate sufficient purchasing power in retirement to allow for a preferred level of consumption through it. Whose view of risk is the more relevant? Whose risk is being managed?

Account based pensions were designed for a time well before the GFC, lower return expectations and boomers entering retirement. They are spectacularly unsuited to dealing with risks that intensify at the point of retirement; sequencing and longevity to name but two. They remain the ‘default’ retirement income solution mainly by being easy to communicate to members, and being understood by them.

We need a whole new conversation about the choice architecture surrounding post-retirement products, starting with how we share the inter-generational burden of providing a dignified standard of living in retirement to all. If we are to make any headway, the concept of risk-pooling (the collective sharing of retirement-based risks) must gain traction in the policy debate. DC solutions based on the primacy of 'individual interest' have been found wanting.

Peter Vann
October 28, 2013

“the onus shifted to the individual [in DC schemes] to be responsible for their retirement income”.

Question: Can super fund members and retirees see how they’re tracking re this responsibility?
Answer: Not properly!

Why: Sadly I believe that the main retirement income estimation tools currently available to members can be quite misleading due to the consequences of ignoring future uncertainties such as investment and inflation risks. ASIC’s Money Smart retirement income calculator (and some super fund on-line calculators) fall into this trap because they are deterministic. Tut tut ASIC for allowing, and even encouraging, funds to provide members misleading information.
A stochastic retirement income calculation that incorporates future uncertainty (eg investment risk) produces distribution of incomes that are natural consequences of future uncertainties. This is achievable today at the member level and provides a useful real time planning tool** that can be efficiently used by members to explore ways to improve their retirement financials.

1) Use of such an asset-liability framework would provide further insights to analysis of numerous issues in Deborah’s paper (eg impact of retirement expenditure patterns).
2) Periodic exposure to a member of an appropriate retirement income tool’s output will:
- anchor their retirement income expectations,
- “encourage personal responsibility” and provide impetus to adjust, and
- “focus [a member] on consumption and not investment” volatility.

** without using time-consuming Monte Carlo simulations

Greg Einfeld
October 28, 2013

Graham, thanks for this article.

As an industry I think we over simplify the concept of retirement. We pretend that people have 2 distinct phases - pre-retirement (working) and retirement. Then we suggest that you should invest in a particular way until your magical retirement date, and then invest differently from the next day.

The reality is very different. Firstly, it is rare that people go cold turkey from working to retirement. They might deliberately phase down their working hours. Or they might lose their jobs and think they are unemployed, and then over time realise they are actually retired.

Secondly, and more importantly, your risk profile doesn't change at all on the day of your planned retirement. You still have the same number of years of life ahead of you. The only thing that has changed is that you are no longer earning an income - but you should already have planned for that.

Paul Murphy
October 27, 2013

I'd like to see account-based longevity risk pooling back in the mix in this discussion. While this doesn't entail guarantees as in life annuities or DLAs, nor does it involve the capital requirements that are needed to support those products (and which serve to negate some or all of the pooling advantages). It is essentially an administrative arrangement to equitably redistribute the unspent savings of those who die early to those who survive longer, from a pool which all of them had opted into with a relatively modest part of their lump sums (~20%) at retirement. This form of collective structure should suit funds that already have large incumbent memberships and can leverage the pooling advantage, bringing some sense of mutuality back into their offerings and providing a real alternative to the current proliferation of investment options, SMSF-like structures etc. This isn't a panacea and involves lots of challenges (implementation, regulatory status, estate planning trade offs etc) but I think quite compelling in principle. It is essentially an extension into post retirement of the "Collective DC" idea that is starting to get some traction in the accumulation phase.

Ramani Venkatramani
October 27, 2013

A critical shortcoming indeed, Graham, thank you for shining a torch into it.
1. At one level, this is an inevitable paradox of our well-regarded retirement policy. In structuring mandatory SG, soft compulsion, the relentless publicity about the need for personal savings not public pension, we have perhaps omitted to ensure the outcomes will match expectations.
2. Longevity, the relative ease of lump sum benefits and the absence of mandated income streams have exacerbated the gap.
3. SG has actually lulled the industry into complacence, with little or no innovation (other than investment choice). The capital imposts on insurers who might otherwise guarantee outcomes are regarded as too heavy to allow risk-taking to earn a profit. The taxpayer might have to underwrite the risk (as he now does partially, with the unfunded age pension).
4. Stronger Super reforms, well intended though they are (reserving judgement on implementation), have widened the expectation gap. Disengaged members, poor financial literacy, conflicted providers, difficulties of regulators drilling into opaque overseas structures etc magnify the risks.
5. In my joint paper on 'Actuarial Challenges in DC Schemes' (2012, Actuaries Institute) we argued for a sort of 'financial ecumenism', where the stakeholders got together to address the gap before a disaster, instead of focusing on their narrow patch alone. Canada seems ahead of us in this game.
6. It is a sad fact of public life (including finance) that we need disasters to prod us into action. The new Financial Systems review has its task cut out. Your alert is timely.


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