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7 strategies to manage a loss of franking

In no other country in the world would a policy proposal on a subject like franking credits become a major election issue. Uniquely in Australia, three factors drive this focus:

  1. The compulsory system which requires most people to put 9.5% of their 'salary' into superannuation.
  2. The SMSF structure which allows individuals as fund trustees to manage their own investments in a tax-free pension environment.
  3. The attraction of high dividend yields and franking credits means Australians invest in shares for income, whereas foreign investors rely more on bonds for income.

As a result, to attract shareholder support, large Australian companies have high payout ratios, whereas US companies retain profits to fund growth. Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, for example, has never paid a dividend. Around 90% of companies in the ASX/S&P200 index pay dividends at an average rate of about 4% before franking, versus only 40% of companies in the S&P500 with an average rate of about 2% with no franking.

Which is why Labor’s proposal to deny franking credit refunds is a major issue for so many retirees who have set up their portfolios and retirement lifestyles in expectation of a franking refund.

The impact of a possible franking change

This article offers alternative strategies if Labor wins the 18 May 2019 election and achieves the support of the Senate in passing relevant legislation. Labor proposes an effective date of 1 July 2019, only six weeks after the election and even if the relevant legislation is not implemented until, say, June 2020, it could be backdated.

This article will not repeat the previous explanation on ‘How franking credits work’.

Some people will be materially affected. An investor with $1 million in Australian shares in a pension phase SMSF earning fully franked dividends of 4.2% receives $42,000 in cash and $18,000 in franking credits, giving a total income of $60,000. The loss of franking reduces income by 30%, a massive change in lifestyle in retirement.

Here are seven strategies to consider for people facing a loss of franking credits.

1. Invest in asset classes that do not rely on franking

Nobody knows exactly what proportion of SMSF assets is allocated to Australian equities with franked dividends. Many investors hold shares directly as well as in unlisted managed funds and trusts and listed vehicles such as Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) and Listed Investment Companies (LICs).

The SMSF Benchmarking Report from Class Limited (based on an analysis of 160,000 SMSFs) shows the following allocations between asset classes (as at 30 June 2018):

Adding the direct listed shares and domestic allocations from trusts takes the Australian share allocation to about 35% to 40%. The Class Report also advises that 52% of SMSFs are in accumulation mode (and therefore paying tax), 17% are in pension (paying no tax) and 31% are mixed, so most SMSFs are paying tax and can probably use their franking credits.

To access income from dividends and franking, pension SMSFs have become too reliant on shares such as Telstra, the major banks, Wesfarmers and Woolworths at the expense of better total returns, including capital growth. Facing the loss of franking, they are likely to allocate more to other assets where income is not franked including property trusts (A-REITs), bonds and global equities. In a survey of Cuffelinks' readers, over 50% said they will change their investments or super structure if Labor's policy is adopted.

In the Australian equities bucket, it is possible to choose more ‘growth’ companies where a higher proportion of the returns should come from capital rather than income. A good example among the banks is Macquarie, where the dividend is only 45% franked.

2. Add members (such as children) to an SMSF

Under Labor’s proposal, an SMSF where all members are in pension mode will lose its franking credits. There is no tax payable to use the credit. However, members who are still in the accumulation phase of superannuation could be added as members of the SMSF. In accumulation, concessional contributions (currently limited to $25,000) are taxed at 15% (or 30% for those with ‘adjusted income’ above $250,000 a year) and earnings are also taxed at 15%.

An SMSF is a single tax entity and the franking credits generated by all members can be used to pay tax. The franking credits can be used to pay the tax of the younger accumulators.

Some financial advisers are not keen on this solution because anyone who adds their children to their SMSF is mixing the superannuation of different generations. An older person may invest more conservatively than a younger person, making asset selection in the interest of all members difficult. Older people may need more liquidity to pay pensions.

3. Qualify for a part pension to receive the ‘pensioner guarantee’

This strategy applies for investments by individuals outside superannuation, as accumulation and pension super accounts are taxed differently.

Outside of superannuation, people should consider the merit of qualifying for an aged pension to retain franking credits if they are just above the pension qualification threshold.

Recipients of a government welfare pension (including full or part age pension, disability support pension, carer payment, Newstart) will continue to receive refunds under a 'pensioner guarantee'. The exception is an SMSF where a welfare recipient was not a member of the SMSF on 28 March 2018.

To be eligible for a part age pension, a homeowner couple can have combined assets (excluding the value of their own home) worth $853,000 before the pension cuts out. There are higher limits for non-homeowners and lower limits for singles (see the Asset test limits).

For a couple with, say, $900,000 in assets, it is worth doing the calculations on the merit of spending $100,000 on a home renovation (or taking a more radical and perhaps wasteful approach, a trip of a lifetime, spending up big) to qualify for a part pension, which may also come with other benefits such as a Pensioner Concession card and the recently-announced Labor policy on dental costs.

The potential result of this strategy is that a couple with $800,000 may have more income (including the part pension and franking refund) than a couple with $900,000.

Note that it is not possible to simply give the $100,000 away as such action will fall foul of the gifting rules. The maximum that can be gifted is $10,000 in any financial year and no more than $30,000 in five financial years. In addition, any gifts in the previous five years may count in the assets test. There is also an incomes test to check for pension eligibility.

We should encourage people not to rely on the age pension, and a self-funded retiree is making a strong budget contribution. Michael Rice of the actuarial firm Rice Warner has estimated that the present value of the maximum age pension for a couple who retires at 65 exceeds $800,000 in today's dollars.

4. Leave money in accumulation rather than pension

All individuals have different financial circumstances. With the assistance of a financial adviser, it’s worth checking whether the loss of franking affects the best way to hold superannuation.

For example, many wealthy people start pension SMSFs to access the tax-free status, not because they need income. Yet under the rules of a pension, the SMSF must pay a minimum amount each year to the member, which rises from 4% according to age. For someone aged 55 to 59, the taxable proportion of the pension SMSF will be taxed at their personal marginal rate less a 15% tax offset. Therefore, the superannuant is paying tax on income that they might not need, and under Labor, may lose access to franking.

It might be better to retain superannuation in accumulation, where there is no requirement to draw a pension.

Furthermore, a large SMSF holding more than the $1.6 million pension cap (or $3.2 million per couple) will already have assets in accumulation phase, where earnings are taxed at 15%, creating a way to use the franking credits.

Let's say someone aged 57 has $1.6 million in a pension SMSF, which they opened to access the zero tax on a pension (and assumed they would receive franking credits). However, they are required to draw 4% or $64,000 as an annual pension which is taxed at their personal marginal tax rate less 15%. So they previously did a calculation which included:

+ save tax on SMSF assets in pension mode versus accumulation

+ receive franking credit refund (which will now be lost)

- tax on pension (which is actually converting capital into taxable income which is not good)

Under Labor's proposal, they lose the franking credit refund. The economics may change, and going from pension back to accumulation may be good because it means:

- pay tax on SMSF assets in accumulation versus pension

+ retain franking credit refunds

+ + no tax to pay on a pension.

So some people should check the numbers as they will change without a franking credit refund.

5. Transfer super to an industry or retail public fund

Where a public fund has more younger members in accumulation phase than older members in pension phase, it will probably have enough tax payable to fully utilise the franking refund. A member in a public fund may receive a different treatment of their franking credits than in an SMSF. If retention of franking credits is the major issue, these funds are worth considering.

However, there are other structural advantages in SMSFs, such as the ability to:

  • Invest in almost any asset. The industry and retail funds have limited menus and do not allow direct investment in unlisted assets such as property and corporate bonds.
  • Access the government guarantee on deposits, as this is available ‘per entity per ADI’. A large fund is only one entity and only has one claim for $250,000 which is irrelevant given its scale.
  • Borrow using Limited Recourse Borrowing Arrangements (although this is now diminished).
  • Include more than one member and spread the cost.

The main reason trustees start SMSFs is for greater control over their investments, and this may not be available in a public fund. However, the ‘direct investment options’ offer far more flexibility.

Note also that not all public funds will refund franking in full, as covered in this article.

There is also some debate about the ability of the trustee of a large super fund to allocate a franking credit refund to a member in pension phase when the accumulation member who incurs the tax might claim some benefit entitlement.

6. Use concessional contributions to create taxable income

Concessional contributions incur a contributions tax which is included in the fund’s taxable income, creating taxable income which can use the fund’s franking credits.

Concessional contributions cannot be made by everyone. Generally, trustees aged between 65 and 74 need to pass the work test in the year of contribution, and those aged over 75 cannot make extra concessional contributions (although Super Guarantee and industrial award contributions can continue).

7. Transfer money from super to an individual's name

Accumulation funds are all taxed at 15% from the first dollar of income, whereas individuals have a tax-free threshold of $18,200 (or greater with the Senior Australians and Pensioners Tax Offset (SAPTO) and other tax offsets. The next personal tax scale is 19% plus 2% Medicare Levy. When an individual starts paying tax, the franking credits can be used. It might be worthwhile using this taxed component to push taxable income down to the tax-free threshold by holding investments in a personal capacity rather than in superannuation.

Like all these strategies, care and advice is needed to ensure the individual does not become subject to higher rates of tax in the personal range, as the accumulation fund would be taxed at 15%.

Conclusion

Labor’s policy proposal has many hurdles to jump, but if adopted, people should check whether the current way they invest, including the types of assets and investment vehicle, is the most efficient for their unique circumstances.

 

Graham Hand is Managing Editor of Cuffelinks. This article is general information and does not consider the circumstances of any investor. It is based on an understanding of Labor’s proposal which is not yet legislated, and this may never happen or occur in significantly different form. Investors are advised to seek professional advice before taking action, and at least wait to see if Labor is elected and able to work with the Senate to pass Labor policies.

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29 Comments

Lyn

May 21, 2019

Well done everyone no matter which side of the house you sit, all had chance to voice views/ learn on this site.

Perhaps well-explained comments on this site explaining to those who didn't understand how Franking Credits work (= tax at income source for individuals for which that tax may be above their nominal rate whether retired or not) may have had some sway in the result.
Our Sharemarket today reflects good sense of ordinary shareholders after election result, 'ordinary' meaning everyday people not Ordinary Shareholders. At highest level for more than 11 years we can all be proud to invest in Australian companies and that collective commonsense has prevailed.
Long live Ozzie companies that pay franked divs and let the rest of the world drool over what we do right--it's not wrong to be the only one doing it. UK did do it & look where they are now some years on from when they ceased similar system.

Dudley

May 21, 2019

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It%27s_The_Sun_Wot_Won_It

The Franking Credit Class War has been won by the rational.

Many people still believe that Franking Credits, especially refunds thereof, are Workers Taxes handed to the Unworthy Wealthy.

Should Labor acquire some numeracy, they might stop misrepresenting the tax system to the misinformed.

Geoff R

May 21, 2019

agree completely Dudley - so many people I have spoken to simply don't understand franking credits and have fallen for the propaganda that the refunds are "cash handouts to people who have paid no tax in the first place".

It has been a stressful period for many and hopefully the lies/misrepresentation will now cease but that is probably asking too much in politics where almost anything is seen as OK if it wins votes. Fortunately in this case it seems enough people saw through the fiction and voted accordingly.

Geoff

May 19, 2019

Remember the infamous UK election headline from 20 odd years ago? I reckon you need a banner : It's CuffeLinks Wot Won It!

Lyn

May 21, 2019

Geoff, Can't recall the UK election headline 20yrs ago----what was it please?

Chris M

May 19, 2019

thanks for all your efforts re franking credits.

what a great election outcome.

for the first time in 16 months I didn’t wake up at 3 am stressed about our retirement future

Graham Hand

May 19, 2019

Hi Chris, appreciate the feedback but we were not actively 'lobbying' against the franking policy. We are providing a forum to discuss it, including ways to manage a response if legislated. Which is why we published an article showing the views of those in favour of it. Although even the AFR said we were leading the charge. G

Warren Bird

May 20, 2019

I was “leading the charge” and appreciate having had so much support for my arguments from so many Cuffelinks readers.

There were many reasons the ALP failed to win but one of them was that they relied far too much on emotion in justifying their policies and failed to address well reasoned alternative views and responses. (Much like just about everyone on Cuffelinks who supported the proposal.)

I think that not only retirees affected by the change voted against them, but a lot of folk saving for their retirement who aspire to having enough in super to self-fund. The ALP basically said that if you aspire to become a self-funded retiree then we’re coming after you.

What they should have done was to identify areas of social need and proposed reasonable ways for all taxpayers to help fund those things. Cheap “class” divisiveness is not acceptable in 21st century Australia.

The Coalition have some poor areas too, by the way and this was in many ways a tough choice. But if Labor had won and made other policy decisions so much at odds with sound economic and financial principles as their franking credit proposal then things could have become very grim.

Let’s just hope they don’t vote Bowen in as leader! That would reveal they’ve not learned the lesson.

RJM

May 20, 2019

Thanks Warren Bird and Geoff Wilson for your efforts.

Graham Hand

May 21, 2019

Yes, many thanks to Warren Bird, Jon Kalkman, Geoff Walker, Graham Horrocks and Matthew Collins in particular for their quality contributions to the franking credits debate. And many others, including the relentless and smart comments from Dudley. They gave our readers greater appreciation of the issues. Graham

Geoff R

May 21, 2019

Yes the outcome of the election was a great relief for many who stood to lose their refunds of overpaid tax, either currently or in the future.

Sincere thanks and gratitude to all who helped... and I sincerely hope the ALP learns from this but last night on TV I once again heard the nonsense of how many billion dollars the government was "spending" on franking credit refunds - which indicated to me they still don't get it - they still think it is the government's money they are handing out. Time will tell.

Geoff (not Wilson!)

May 21, 2019

I saw on The Drum last night that, still, the ABC has been unable to locate a commenter or presenter who actually understood what an imputation credit was - even those who understood the damage the policy did to Labor's election chances didn't really understand the issue in any depth.

And certainly Labor, and in particular Chris Bowen, didn't either.

Geoff R

May 21, 2019

>And certainly Labor, and in particular Chris Bowen, didn’t either.

it is hard to know if Chris Bowen really didn't fully understand franking credits, or if he did in fact understand but thought it would not hurt the ALP electorally as the refunds were mainly limited to people who would not vote his way in any case. ie. he understood the mechanics of franking but not the electoral impact.

I supose it would be too much to expect an apology from Labor for the 14 months of unnecessary stress caused by this for so many. How the new ALP leader deals with this (whoever it ends up being) will be instructive as to whether they have seen the error of their ways (and I am not holding my breath...)

Dudley

May 22, 2019

"it is hard to know if Chris Bowen really didn’t fully understand franking credits":

He often repeated:
“A nurse who earns $67,000 a year we charge $13,000 in tax. But a retired shareholder who has $67,000 in income we charge her zero tax and then write her a cheque for $27,000. That is not OK,” Mr Bowen said.

He was told of the errors therein.

PeeJay

May 22, 2019

Let's enjoy the refunds for another three years.

The franking credits are too attractive for Labor to leave untouched. Especially as the amount of refunds will grow as more people retire. Only next time, the policy will probably be announced much closer to the election, with insufficient time to discuss who or what will be affected.

Dudley

May 22, 2019

"The franking credits are too attractive for Labor to leave untouched.":

Given the infinity of time, it is possible that even Labor will realise that:

Franking Credits are merely a means of assigning Tax Credits for Tax Paid by a Payer on Income owned by a Payee to said Payee.

As was understood by the previous generation of Labor 'luminaries' prior to Bowen.

Should Labor want to revisit pillaging and plundering, instead of blundering, they might consider the tax rates of said Payee - rather than applying a 100% tax on Tax Refunds derived from Franking Credits but not other, 'more conscionable', income.

SMSF Trustee

May 19, 2019

Thankfully not needed now.

Graham Hand

May 19, 2019

Indeed. At least we all know how franking credits work now. I wonder if Labor think this policy was worth it, and did they underestimate the backlash. Judging by the number of advisers who intended meeting their clients if this policy was adopted, and all the ways around it, it's doubtful it would have raised the expected revenue.

John M

May 17, 2019

Thank you for a further absorbing article this time in regards to franking credits and in particular i refer para 3 of the article by by Mr. Hand which only illustrates the confusion that exists.The article states “recipients of a welfare pension - - will continue to receive refunds under a pensioners guarantee.The exception is an SMSF where a welfare recipient was not a member of the SMSF on 28 March 2018.

A SMSF of which i am one of 4 members has been advised by an accountant that although the one member had been in receipt o pension from the SMSF for some 6 years as he had not been a recipient of apart aged pension until March 2019 that if legislated refunds of franked dividends would not be paid.

In addition it is perhaps not clear if the SMSF were to receive a refund would it be the total amount of franking accrued or would it be a pro rata in proportion to the welfare recipients entitlement within the SMSF.

Is there a clear answer.Thank you.

Graham Hand

May 17, 2019

Hi John

We are not licensed to give personal advice but I will give you a general reply.

The Labor policy says:

"Self-managed Superannuation Funds with at least one recipient of an Australian Government pension or allowance as at 28 March 2018 will be exempt from the changes."

The policy has not been legislated, but I agree with your accountant on the limited information available. That is, no member of the SMSF was in receipt of a government pension (the pension from the super fund is not relevant) on 28 March 2018, and therefore, refunds of franking credits will not be available.

The pro rata question doesn't matter because a refund will not be available.

But you should not rely on this interpretation, especially since it is only a proposal at this stage.

Rahul

May 17, 2019

Thanks Graham.

In relation to strategy 7, there is a potential trap here competing with benefits during lifetime and costs post death. To illustrate a worst case outcome:

Say a decision is made to cash $300,000 lump sum from pension phase. Assume, this $300,000 is comprised entirely of tax-free component.

Now, this $300,000 and any growth (assume it is the balance of one pension) does not incur CGT during life nor after death, when paid to a beneficiary. The growth of the $300,000 pension will also add towards the tax-free component so there is no Super death benefit tax if paid to an adult child.

A decision is made to cash the pension fund (in-specie or selldown and transfer cash) to own shares individually. While one may be able to benefit from refund of franking credits if a pensioner, a trap here is what happens on the growth. Say after 10 years, the $300,000 outside super share portfolio has grown to $500,000 - representing $200,000 of capital gains.

This capital gain is now taxable in the hands of the estate or a beneficiary upon a future disposal. Potentially, in the wrong hands of a high income beneficiary, there is potential that the high income beneficiary is liable to pay 47% tax on 50% of the capital gain (maybe 75% of the capital gain if ALP’s reduction of CGT discount is legislated)

The broad point here is that taking monies outside of super has ramifications and an informed decision needs to be made understanding the relevant advantages and disadvantages or strategies to mitigate any potential pain.

Stephen

May 16, 2019

Hi Graham

Thanks for the great publication.

Assuming you have not already seen and considered this already, in the interests of fair and balanced discussion you may wish to republish or at least link to the eminently readable and informative academic article below.

http://theconversation.com/at-last-an-answer-to-the-5-billion-question-who-gets-the-imputation-cheques-labor-will-take-away-117075

Cheers Stephen

Richie Rich

May 22, 2019

Thanks Stephen for daring to mention the elephant in the room, namely that "the majority of excess imputation payments go to high income and/or high wealth households who ideally would be paying at least some tax on what they earned". And so it goes on - watch this space!

Graham Hand

May 22, 2019

Hi Richie, this issue depends on what is meant by 'high wealth'. Those with really large SMSFs (with balances in pension and accumulation, or only in accumulation) or other income outside super - that is, the truly wealthy - could still use their franking credits to pay their tax. Their position was unchanged by Labor's policy.

stefy

May 16, 2019

"Access the government guarantee on deposits, as this is available ‘per entity per ADI’. "
I thought I read, some time ago now, that the current government had abolished this in the dead of the night with very few senators present to vote it into law ( I seem to recall Feburary 2018?). Just another example of how sneaky this current lot have been.
I am happy to be proven to have a defective memory of this.

SH2071

May 18, 2019

You only need to spend 15 seconds on Google to remind yourself of the facts.

Go to
https://www.fcs.gov.au/are-your-deposits-protected which clearly confirms that $250k per entity per ADI still applies.

Rob

May 16, 2019

Thanks Graham.
Another strategy that could be used by individuals (ie. those not receiving Centrelink pensions) and/or accumulation phase SMSFs, is to proactively manage their annual capital gains to ensure sufficient taxable gains are achieved which can be offset against net imputation credits (ie. those that previously would have been refunded) received during the year.

In addition, in an individual sense, I suspect that personal tax deductions for donations, investment subscriptions, deductible super contributions, etc. will not be as attractive and could be scaled back accordingly, to ensure as many franking credits are used up as possible.

Trevor L

May 18, 2019

I have come to the same conclusions as you regarding using rather than loosing excess franking credits:

1/ Judiciously realize capital gains each year to increase (cash-flow) income and tax payable to "use" franking credits.

2/ No longer worry about recording - or even incurring - tax deductible expenses, concessional super contributions until age 65 etc, as tax deductions against income will be worth less than lost franking credits. Again the trick is to maximize taxable non-franked income so as you're loosing a minimum of excess non-refundable franking credits, especially while a portfolio is transitioned/re-balanced or consumed.

Dudley

May 16, 2019

"individuals have a tax-free threshold of $18,200 (or greater with the Senior Australians and Pensioners Tax Offset (SAPTO) and other tax offsets. The next personal tax scale is 19% plus 2% Medicare Levy.":

For seniors there is no 19% tax band:
https://docdro.id/0nzjM6G

Fade-in and fade-out of the various tax offsets and levies alters the tax bands and rates.

For example, the senior tax rate at $37,000 is 53.50%.


 

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