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Exciting times in superannuation research

I recently attended the 21st Annual Colloquium of Superannuation Researchers. As someone driven to see better population-wide retirement outcomes, the contributions coming from the academic research community are exciting for me. The broad range of research areas, the techniques used to address different research questions and the overall quality of work instill me with confidence that the academic researcher community will contribute significantly to improving retirement outcomes.

While many in industry may suggest that academic research is not easily applicable to industry, the tide has well and truly turned. This conference and many others coordinated by universities (for instance the Paul Woolley Centre Conference held at UTS, another favourite of mine), involve academics, industry practitioners and representatives from industry bodies, regulators and other government agencies. There is an expanding line of engagement between academia and industry.

Highlights of the conference

The 21st Colloquium was a great event, coordinated by Hazel Bateman, with assistance from Ralph Stevens and Kevin Liu. It was originally established by David Knox, now at Mercer, when he was an academic at Melbourne University. So what were some of the highlights at this year’s Colloquium? Four examples illustrate the broad range of research questions and techniques being utilised.

1. Cognitive ability and its effect on managing an SMSF

Joanne Earl presented on research she conducted alongside Paul Gerrans, Anthony Asher and Julia Woodside. Joanne is an organisational psychologist with 20 years industry experience. The focus of her research is making retirement a positive experience and she considers more than just financial outcomes. The research presented explored the influence of cognitive decline on the quality of financial decision-making in retirement, and specifically the case of those with SMSF’s, where there are often more decision-making responsibilities. The research consisted of assessing a group of 103 SMSF managers aged 51 and over. The assessment considered their demographic variables (age, gender, education and superannuation balance), psychosocial variables (such as risk aversion and mastery), cognitive ability, and self-reported dementia symptoms. The research generated statistically significant results that those with self-reported cognitive dementia symptoms are more vulnerable to making poor financial judgements. This research has a clear application for those involved in establishing SMSF’s, to ensure there are procedures for assessing cognitive ability and stated contingencies to deal with its onset. From a regulatory perspective if this issue is not addressed then they may need to introduce new guidelines to protect against this situation.

2. Consume now or in the future

Dan Goldstein is part of a collaborative research project between Microsoft Research and the London Business School. The project involves Nobel Laureate Bill Sharpe. The focus of the research is on self-control issues, which include saving for the future, and the battle between the desire to consume now (the ‘present-oriented self’) versus future consumption (the ‘future-oriented’ self). One interesting outcome of the research was suggestions around some retirement account engagement campaigns.

Two examples really grabbed my attention. One consisted of a photo of yourself, now and a generated projection of your future old age image (scary but also catalysing in its attempts to make you acknowledge you will be old one day). The images were separated by a horizontal slider which you could interact with to change the savings level. If you saved less ‘current you’, on the left, would smile more but ‘future you’, on the right of screen, would develop a frown, and vice versa.

Another example took account of where you lived, and based on different rates of savings displayed pictures of different properties for lease (linked to an online real estate listing) for each savings level. Both examples highlight the need to make retirement projection more tangible and personal. They were much more engaging than what currently exists in industry.

3. Financial literacy improves financial outcomes

There is much empirical evidence that suggests financial literacy improves financial outcomes in retirement. However there has been little in the way of theoretical models which can explain why this is the case. Olivia Mitchell, Executive Director of the Pension Research Council, based at the Wharton Business School (and a leading researcher on everything to do with pensions and retirement), along with Annamaria Lusardi and Pierre-Carl Michaud extend existing theoretical lifecycle models by including financial knowledge accumulation. The model demonstrates the significance of financial literacy in explaining the variation in retirement savings outcomes across the population (based on US data). Even a little bit of financial knowledge is valuable and improves financial outcomes. This type of research provides government and regulators with certainty on this issue, thereby prompting them to act (for example by creating more financial literacy programmes at schools).

4. Deeper analysis of SMSF data

In some cases successful research can be derived by accessing a dataset which no one else can (of course it has to be analysed well!). For instance it is not uncommon for researchers at the Colloquium to wish they had access to some of Treasury’s data for their own research (Treasury’s Retirement Income Modelling unit provides much comprehensive retirement income research and are annual presenters at the Colloquium). The SMSF industry is an interesting case in point: it is large, fast growing and attracts lots of attention. Yet many characteristics of SMSF’s have still not been deeply researched by academia. Adrian Raftery, a PhD candidate at UTS, comes from an industry background (he previously ran his own accounting and tax advice firm) and he has gained access to a large collection of ATO SMSF account-based data (obviously without personal details).

Using this data Adrian explores areas such as account size, account management costs, asset allocation and performance. Where this extends the literature (the key objective of academic research) is that the next best factual piece on SMSF characteristics is based on less than 100 accounts sourced from a single financial advisory firm in a single geographic region (so unlikely to be representative of the broader population). Unfortunately I cannot share the results with you until the paper is published but some of the facts differ from those quoted by industry and industry bodies. Once the embargo is lifted I will share these results with you.

Wide range of useful research

There is much to be excited about and each of the above examples will be useful for industry, including the private sector, government, regulators or industry bodies. Over time, academic research will make a good contribution to improving Australian retirement outcomes.

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