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Halving super drawdowns helps wealthy retirees most

On 29 May 2021, the Government announced by way of a media release the extension of an emergency COVID measure. The temporary halving of minimum drawdown rates for retirement superannuation accounts - introduced in March 2020 while the Australian stock market was in freefall - would continue for another year.

The explanation was terse and does not stand up to scrutiny.

The biggest beneficiaries of the extension are wealthy retirees who use super to escape tax on funds they are building up to hand on to their children. It provides no benefits to less well-off retirees who need to use money in super to live on in retirement.

Before the temporary halving of drawdown requirements in March 2020, a retiree aged between 65-74 would be required to withdraw at least 5% of their account balance each year. The minimum withdrawal rate increases with age.

The merit in the requirement (even if the numbers used have an unavoidable element of arbitrariness) was that it limited the ability of wealthy retirees to use super as a pure tax dodge. Funds in super retirement accounts have a zero tax rate on earnings and are untaxed when withdrawn.

Super is meant to be for retirement

The original decision in March 2020 to halve minimum withdrawals possibly made some sense. Following a peak on 20 February 2020, stock markets plunged and super funds suffered negative returns (minus 10.3% in the March 2020 quarter, according to the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority).

Withdrawing funds, possibly not currently needed, from a tax-preferred portfolio at a time when its value was (hopefully temporarily) depressed was not an optimal wealth management strategy.

Those sufficiently well-off and able to draw on assets outside super, could now draw down less in order to maximise super tax benefits. The less well-off (without significant financial assets outside of super) got no such benefit. They still needed to draw down at a similar rate for living expenses, or cut back consumption.

There are possibly some (probably not many), between these two groups, for whom the policy change meant improved whole-of-retirement living standards given the subsequent recovery in super fund returns. And the announcement may have had some beneficial psychological effects!

So it might have been possible to give the original decision a tick of approval.

By June 2021, the S&P/ASX 200 had more than recovered 

Source: S&P Global

But what about the decision to extend the halving of minimum withdrawal rates for another entire financial year?

The explanation in the media release is little more than unsubstantiated waffle.

Today’s announcement extends that reduction to the 2021-22 income year and continues to make life easier for our retirees by giving them more flexibility and choice in their retirement.

For many retirees, the significant losses in financial markets as a result of the COVID-19 crisis are still having a negative effect on the account balance of their superannuation pension.

The second sentence certainly warrants scrutiny.

APRA statistics show that in the year to March 2021 the rate of return for institutional super funds was 18.2%. This is well in excess of what was required to reverse the temporary loss in the March quarter of 2020 that prompted the original decision.

These APRA statistics for March 2021 were published on 25 May 2021. The information underlying them was presumably available to the Government well before its announcement on 29 May 2021.

Superannuation performance (excluding self-managed funds)

Source: APRA Quarterly superannuation performance statistics, March 2021, Table 1C

The APRA figures are aggregates. There might be some individual funds that had not recovered from the losses of a year earlier, but each of the categories of institutional funds in the APRA statistics appeared to have done so.

The APRA statistics do not include SMSFs and some of them might not have fully recovered (we don’t know). But even if so, that would reflect decisions about asset allocations in the control of the fund members.

This means the second sentence of the explanation reproduced above is at best unproven, and likely wrong. The first sentence is, of course, tautologically true. The extension will indeed give retirees more flexibility in their retirement.

Super as a tax dodge

The rationale for the drawdown requirement was to limit the use of super as a wealth maximisation strategy for the benefit of heirs.

The purpose of super is meant to be to provide income security and a reasonable standard of living in retirement. That’s what the 200-page report of the Retirement Income Review commissioned by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told him in November 2020. 

The key beneficiaries of the reduced drawdown extension are the well-off who already get the most benefit from Australia’s super system. Retirees who need super to live on won’t benefit in the least.The Conversation


Kevin Davis, Emeritus Professor of Finance, The University of Melbourne. He was a panel member on the Financial System Inquiry chaired by David Murray. Kevin is a Board Member of Super Consumers Australia, but this is a personal perspective, and nothing in the article should be inferred to represent views or policies of that organisation.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. The original article is here


D Ramsay
October 22, 2021

I agree with "John October 21, 2021" - my SMSF income (I keep spread sheets for yearly data and NOT FY data) dropped 20%, compared to 2019, in the calendar year 2020 and then it dropped by 60% , compared to 2019, in the calendar year 2021. But my investments are such that I sleep well at night.
This is income I speak of, not capital gains my share portfolio made as they are "paper" gains that are not real because I didn't sell any shares.

October 20, 2021

This is a typical academic paper which is virtually useless without a definition of wealth . If you run actual examples and assume that the retiree does not have large amounts invested outside of super then the loss of revenue to the government is miniscule . This is because wealthy people will already be paying 15% in their super fund and can invest sizeable amounts outside of super before paying any tax at all .
eg someone with a $4 million fund at a deemed rate of %5 can now take out $100 000 instead of $200 000 . They likely spend more than 100k anyway but if they take 200 k out and only spend half the difference invested at 6% will not effect their tax position

October 20, 2021

One possible way around this problem (having to sell assets at reduced prices in a market correction) is the widely used "bucket" approach where you have a number of years of pension as cash or similar. It's recommended for this very situation. If you are mandated to withdraw 4 or 5% and have say 20-40% in cash-type investments you have between 4 and 10 years worth of pension payments before needing to sell any growth assets. And even with reduced dividends you are getting some of this replenished as well. If you are forced to sell assets in year 1 to cover the minimum withdrawal you should revisit your investment strategy.

Non Wealthy Self Funded Retiree
October 17, 2021

Nothing too surprising from someone sheltered by 30 plus years in academia. It is about time we applauded the self funded in this country, instead of denigrating them for practicing the dying trait of self sufficiency, rather than Govt dependency. 

October 20, 2021

The only "convenant" that is required in this country is one where both sides of politics are made to agree in legislation not to tamper with the retirement/super system moving forward and to keep their end of the agreement. Self Funded retirees have put their own money prudently locked aside for years in order to pay for their own retirement and not rely on Govt handouts. In return they have been promised its their money tax free in retirement to manage responsibly themselves as they see fit. Governments which have failed to set money aside and instead build up billions in debt will no doubt come looking at the super honey pot to raise revenue in future. Fuelled by articles like this one from academics which support a rob from the rich public mentality as per the proposals of Shorten and Bowen at the last election. 

Self supporting retiree
October 20, 2021

As the Superannuation Guarantee did not commence until the 1990's, many current self funded retirees did not have long term employer funded superannuation. Late in their working lives they funded their SMSF by contributing "after tax" lump sum contributions (savings and other assets). It is rarely recognised that often a large proportion of their pensions consists of a "return of capital" from previously taxed capital contributions to an SMSF, not from "tax deducted" contributions accumulated over many years and compounded in a 15% taxed fund.

Jon Kalkman
October 16, 2021

Once an Account Based Pension has started, there can be no more contributions, and once in pension mode, an annual mandated pension must be paid out in cash. Failure to do do so means the loss of the fund’s tax-free status.

If the pension payment is greater than the income earned by the fund, some fund assets need to be sold to make up the difference. Assets that are sold are consequently not available to generate income in future and those assets cannot be replaced with new contributions. As more assets are sold, the fund is progressively exhausted and sooner rather than later, retirees come to depend on the old-age pension. The whole point of mandated pensions that increase with age, is to hasten this process.

Besides elderly people whose mandated pension exceeds their fund’s income, there are many people whose fund needs to sell assets to pay for these withdrawals. They include those who take lump sums and those whose cost of living increases. Those who take a pension from an industry fund, may not know it, but their fund is selling assets with every pension payment. The fund typically does not distinguish between capital and income, and relies on the increasing value of their units so that this process of asset sales can continue for longer.

A pension payment taken during an economic downturn as two effects. It means that the fund income is reduced, thereby increasing the need to sell assets, AND the market price of those assets is reduced, thereby making it necessary to sell more assets to generate the same cash pension.

The reduction in the mandated pension has nothing to do with what people need or can afford. Its purpose was preserving capital within a super fund so that it can go on delivering super pensions for longer, thereby delaying dependence on the old-age pension - at no real cost to the government.

Really wealthy people have more than $1.7million in super, but this money is no longer in a pension fund. There are no mandated withdrawals from an accumulation fund except total withdrawal at death. Therefore, a reduction in the mandated pension withdrawal requirement was not relevant to those wealthy people.

Of course, retirees who depend on a defined benefit pension do not need to worry about economic downturns, inflation or outliving their money because all these retirement risks are managed by their previous employer - the taxpayer.

October 17, 2021

Thanks Jon. Most informative.

October 16, 2021

If most people with super can manage on 50% of their usual drawdown why bother having a minimum drawdown . Let everyone choose how much they wish to withdraw and have a max limit on how much can be withdrawn per year. This way you can limit people using up their super to be eligible for the full pension.

October 16, 2021

"have a max limit on how much can be withdrawn per year. This way you can limit people using up their super to be eligible for the full pension.": Why bother creating a different administrative hassle. Age Pension for all age eligible resident citizens. Spend all super to collect Age Pension: it will become the taxed income and savings of others. A pre-death 'bequest' to the economy.

October 16, 2021

No great revelations here. That the current superannuation system favours the wealthy is beyond doubt.

But what is lost in the debate is that for those in the middle, who have (relatively) modest super balances and don't qualify for the aged pension, the continuation of this concession is welcome.

Returns for the ye 31-March-21 staged a strong recovery, but a correction in the share market is still on the cards, so preserving your capital by reducing mandated withdrawals, is not unfair.

You make the decision to live more modestly and/or draw from your cash buffer (while acknowledging that is an option not available to all retirees ) to keep the lights on.

Yes super is for providing a retirement income stream, but self-funded retirees who are on the margin, face the unrelenting anxiety of whether your capital will last the distance, whether the next market crash will leave you with a big capital loss that may take years to restore. So any relief on compulsory pension withdrawals that you can afford is welcome.

By all means look at means testing access to all super concessions to reduce rorting by the wealthy, but remember the bulk of retirees have relatively modest balances.

SMSF Trustee
October 16, 2021

How does it "favour the wealthy"?
You mean those who have to pay 30% contributions tax instead of 15?
You mean those who have to keep paying tax on their funds earnings because they have more than than the tax free cap?

Yeah there's nothing about this system that taxes higher income earners or higher balance holders more than others at all.

Give us a break with the ignorant throw away lines please!

October 17, 2021

Totally agree. Like others I have focused on building my super over a 45 year period. Yes I have done well. Don’t try to convince me that I am advantaged. If I am then I deserve to be considering the tax I pay for over the cap funds.
Also Super if meant to be tax advantaged. What’s the point of Super if it’s not tax advantaged.

October 16, 2021

"Outside super you pay full whack.": Which is 0% for the vast majority.
"put a limit on it, for example people with a balance below $2 million.": They did; $1,700,000 transfer balance cap.

At no cost to government, reducing the minimum retired account capital withdrawal reduces the amount of Age Pension government must pay due to the Asset Test - assuming most retirees spend or convert to non-assessable most of each year's minimum capital withdrawal.

Reductions in assessable assets between $891,500 and $405,000 result in a government guaranteed 8% tax free return for life - the part or full Age Pension.

October 14, 2021

With SAPTO, retirees pay $0 all the way up to around $37,300 per person from all sources. So, if you withdraw funds from the ZERO tax - account based pension and invest in your own name (or spouse name) to generate dividends, you can still benefit from ZERO tax all the way up to a total family income of $74,600. This probably covers 95% of the population. It's nice to be a professor emeritus, maybe this is why he is so worried that the wealthy are dodging tax. 

October 14, 2021

"With SAPTO, retirees pay $0 all the way up to around $37,300 per person from all sources.":

$31,658 for senior couple each; total $63,316.

October 14, 2021

"from a tax free to a taxable environment": Where it would return less than the tax free threshold in the great majority of instances. By keeping capital in super funds, government pays less Age Pension for home owning couples with assessable assets from $405,000 to $891,500 - saving government 8% / y on amounts such couples dissipate or convert to non-assessable (home improvement).

October 13, 2021

Professor Davis is drawing on emotion to make some personal points. But the facts tell me that the decision is ambivalent on super wealth as it offers the same benefit to all retirees on a percentage not absolute basis. It potentially impacts all retirees in the same way and it remains a choice for all of them. The use of 'super to escape tax on funds they are building up to hand on to their children' is also somewhat emotional and lacks substance. One could just as easily assume that less well off retirees are also using super in the same way as the wealthier ones-just smaller amounts. Here the words are more or less just personal assertions. Yes the APRA statistics do not help one understand whether funds have recovered or not so the statement that the second sentence 'is at best unproven, and likely wrong' could also have been written 'is at best unproven and likely right'. 

October 16, 2021

Spot on.

Dave Roberts
October 13, 2021

I’m paying $950 per year for full admin. Including audit. Funds in passive ETFs ranging from 0.07% to 0.20% fees. So much cheaper than any Retail or Industry funds. I can not understand how SMSF administrators can charge such extortionate fees I had quotes ranging from $2000 to $5000 when starting my fund. Perhaps you could do an article on fees charged by SMSF Administrators.

October 13, 2021

Yes, this does appear to be another healthy dose of "middle/upper class welfare".

October 13, 2021

"middle/upper class welfare":

Withdrawing capital is welfare in NewSpeak?

October 13, 2021

Thank goodness for people who still support themselves in retirement and who have weathered the covid financial storm - with still no idea how things are going to end up and no government safety net. March 2020 - The markets plummeted, interest rates followed, companies stopped paying dividends. Then the recovery - asset prices soared, without a commensurate percentage return on investments, this in turn increased the value of the pension account, so the dollar value of minimum drawdowns increased to levels that may not always be covered by income alone, trustees may have to sell income producing assets to cover the drawdowns thus restricting their income further so super balance gets run down in 10 years instead of 20?
The increase in the APRA rate of return of institutional funds would include unrealised assets e.g. share prices, that can just as easily fall 18.2% in the next 12 months.
We weren't expecting this level of volatility when we decided to retire and I don't think policy makers expected it either. Self funded retirees, like myself are often not "rich" as so many left wing thinkers would like to portray to the public, they often have a decent super balance because they are prudent, they saved - and since when was it a sin to help your children? Saving is almost a dirty word these days with negative attributes often being given to savers - we could have spent it all on luxury holidays etc, would that have made us better people as suggested?
So congratulations to the government for being flexible and making the 50% decision and for having a deeper understanding of how retirees ( i.e. real people) are coping, how pension balances are affected by volatile asset prices and uncertain times.

October 17, 2021

Absolutely spot on Cate!

Roy Taylor
October 20, 2021

Spot on Cate, we are the best judges on what we need to withdraw to live on, we are the ones who have saved our entire lives to be self sufficient , what we do with our money should be our decision not some half baked public servant, who might live off the left hand side of the road, personally I am sick of them telling us what to do when it is us who have been making decisions how to be secure all of our lives.

Jan H
October 13, 2021

I welcome the lower drawdown. With dividend cuts and interest rates at near zero, the income my SMSF earns has dropped. I try to earn enough income to cover the pension drawdown. This was manageable with the drawdown reduction. If the capital drops too much, it won't be worth having a SMSF pension due to the accounting/audit fees which keep rising annually. The Covid hit and recent market downturn makes capital preservation a high-wire balancing task. I've grown accustomed to the daily market volatility caused by various institutional and neophyte manipulators. But, it is still a difficult high-wire juggling act for the long-term retail investors, who genuinely invest not "day trade" the market. And terribly irritating. I would prefer the half drawdown were permanent. After all, there is no ban on taking more than the minimum pension. So where's the problem.

Jake The Peg
October 13, 2021

Look the whole tax system needs reforming so the Professor here is cherry picking one issue only. Needless to say that he is probably a member of UniSuper and more than likely their Defined Benefit Scheme whereby he gets far more in the way of employer contributions than the general public. You could also say that jobseeker, jobkeeper, cashflow boost, etc. etc. were total wastes of $$ as well. As they say in the classics - "it's only a rort when you a not in on it"

October 13, 2021

Our author is another member of the highly paid, defined benefit super "academic elite", who seem to think that because of their status they are able to opine on how others must live their lives. They also have been telling us what to do in managing Covid, without having to worry about paying the rent or putting shoes on their kids' feet while stood down. Quoting super fund returns while instructive may not always help - many retirees have been living on Term Deposit returns as retirement income, and we all know what interest rates have done there. At least by reducing the drawdown requirement even those who need to draw more can at least do so through a lump sum commutation - while it is perhaps of little comfort that does reduce their super amount aginst the Transfer Balance Cap. Not a problem the defined benefit academics need to worry about of course.

Errol Davey
October 16, 2021

It’s only a rout when your not on it! Sums it up even Professors are bias and can’t see the wood for the trees!

October 13, 2021

Those home owners who need to withdraw more than 2.5% capital from super to exceed their expenditure spend most on luxuries, not necessities. The Age Pension more than covers necessities.

For retired home owners the cost of living is ~$20,000 / y. The Age Pension is $37,000 / y. The tax free threshold for seniors $60,000 / y.

$20,000 / 2.5% = $800,000. The Age Pension part pension cut-off is $891,500.

October 14, 2021

Come on Dudley, $20,000/yr cost of living. My "unavoidable" bills add up to more than that before food or any extras (gas, electricity, telstra, health insurance, car insurance, house insurance, rates etc). Just insurances are around $7000/yr. I suspect Mrs Dudley doesn't get to go out very often!

October 14, 2021

Food is a definite cost of living. Many spend more than necessary by buying "entertainment groceries" - often "paying" with their health. Going out walking costs nothing. "Going out" and paying to have food prepared is a cost of entertainment not a cost of living.

$20,000 / y includes plenty that were either not essential or not available just a few decades ago.

October 14, 2021

And your point is?

October 13, 2021

I thank my lucky stars that the Government reduced the minimum drawdown by 50% .... I live in hope that they will give us the same choice for another 12 months.
I have a SMSF which barely made enough to pay the lower amount. I have lived on the smell of an oily rag for the last 18 months (being in constant lockdown has helped) which has given my portfolio time to recover most of the losses. Hopefully it will make enough to manage my next annual pension payment without depleting the capital to much.

October 13, 2021

Hi Sally, gosh, why are you living on the 'smell of an oily rag' when you have an SMSF. SMSFs usually have decent balances, can't you draw some of the capital and live a little, no doubt you've earned it. Do you own your own home - draw on the capital. Are you skimping to leave money to your kids when you are 90 and they are 60, and they probably don't need it as much as you do now?

October 13, 2021

If you’re scrimping in an SMSF you need to wind it up and transfer to a low cost fund, such as an industry fund. No worries, no dramatic fall in values, and an easy monthly payment.

October 13, 2021

"If you’re scrimping in an SMSF you need to wind it up and transfer to a low cost fund":

Most likely best to withdraw all from super and invest personally. $60,000 tax free threshold for senior couple.

Convert assets greater than $405,000 to Age Pension non- assessable home improvements. Claim Age Pension $38,000 / y, invest $405,000 return rate 5.4% returning $22,000. Total $60,000 tax free pluse home rent free and capital gains free returning ~6% / y.

Goronwy Price
October 13, 2021

The article is spot on. I loved getting this break, but it was an unnecessary handout, particularly extending the goodies for a second year. Thanks Mr Taxman.

October 14, 2021

Where was the "handout"? How did the taxman help? (pensions, which this relates to are tax free anyway). You were allowed to spend less of your own money to avoid selling assets at depressed prices. This is now seen as some form of govt handout? And incomes from investments collapsed at the time as well. Perhaps to use the median fund size (in pension phase) to assess likely benefits rather than just assume what the top 1% might gain might provide more balanced analysis.

Goronwy Price
October 14, 2021

Because if you have to take money out of super you move it from a tax free to a taxable environment. The gains you then make on that money are taxable. In my case including both years my guess would be I am 10K ahead as a result of leaving it in the super fund rather than investing it outside super. Really a tax break for those that do not need it.

October 14, 2021

To Goronwy Price : "but it was an unnecessary handout," ...what handout? It is your own money that you invested and you are receiving back to live on, presumably as much as you need ! There is no upper limit on how much you can draw-down, you can take the lot in one hit if that suits you. It is yours. There is an imposed minimum that you had to withdraw which has been halved so that you can live "even more frugally than usual" while leaving some of your investment capital to earn more dividends/income for you, without incurring a penalty. But it is you who determines how much you withdraw over and above that imposed minimum. That is not a handout. It seems to be misperception everywhere you look ! As Dudley, despairingly puts it, "Withdrawing capital is welfare in NewSpeak?" Afraid so. 

Goronwy Price
October 16, 2021

No the issue is not the upper limit. When you keep money in super you keep the earnings on that money tax free or only taxed at15%. Outside super you pay full whack. At an earlier time the government decided that people would have to take 4 or 5% of the total starting value of the fund out each year when in pension mode. This is reasonable. We got a 50% discount on this. As the article says the benefit went to wealthier retirees. I understand the reason for this discount, but they should have put a limit on it, for example people with a balance below $2 million.


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