Murray pinpoints inconsistency on financial advice and super trustees

Big nest egg or small: shouldn’t super fund trustees meet the same professional standards as individual financial planners? Image sourced from www.shutterstock.com

Finally, Financial System Inquiry chairman, David Murray, has brought some consistency into two hot debates running in finance.

Parliament, financial media commentators and a whole range of vested interests have argued at length over the last year about who can give financial advice, how they should be remunerated, how they should be trained and what qualifications they should have.

At the same time there has been an ongoing debate in the media, through speeches and submissions, about who is appropriately qualified to be trustees of large superannuation funds.

The same groups have made the opposite arguments in the two cases.

One group of institutions, mainly the industry super funds, has been arguing that we need to have greater independence of financial planners and advisers. Another group of institutions, mainly the retail super funds, have been arguing that advisers can be aligned but should be more closely controlled. Most importantly, they argue that they should be more professional. The recent political fight around the roll back of Labor’s Future of Financial Advice (FOFA) reforms has essentially been focused on these issues of independence and professionalism.

At the same time the retail super funds have been pushing to ensure that a majority of the directors of superannuation funds should be independent. They are pushing the case for greater professionalism of superannuation trustees. By contrast the industry super funds have been arguing that this is not necessary, and that trustees do not need special knowledge. Most particularly they have argued that trustees coming from particular employers and particular employee groups, without any particular qualification, are appropriate.

Murray has pointed out the inconsistency. If the person advising me on my $200,000 superannuation fund must be professional, then the trustee for a fund managing $2 billion for its members surely deserves the same respect.

Clearly both are important. An adviser who gives me bad advice can ruin my retirement and my life. Notably however, a superannuation fund which makes mistakes can cost thousands of people security in their retirement. There are three reasons to think that the latter is more important.

The 2010 Cooper report into the superannuation system pointed out that by 2035 the average superannuation fund supervised by the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) (that is, excluding the self-managed sector) will be managing $53 billion on behalf of superannuants. This is a very large amount of money, the lifetime savings of thousands of members. Putting to one side the politics and the vested interests, clearly it is extremely important that the directors of superannuation funds be appropriately qualified and highly skilled.

The second reason is that superannuation sector is not simply important to individuals, but to Australia’s economic future. Murray makes clear that the superannuation sector is well on the way to being one of the largest components of the Australian financial system, not far from the size of the banks. Where and how it invests will shape much of Australia’s growth and development. This alone is a key reason to demand a high degree of professionalism in the management of the sector.

The third argument Murray makes for independence of directors, is that since people can choose which fund they join, the superannuation funds will be increasingly de-linked from particular industries. If anyone can join a fund, there is little reason for the trustees of the fund to belong to a particular sector of the workforce (employers or employees).

One would actually hope that APRA would have a say in approving who could be a trustee of a major superannuation fund, and would set very high standards of training and experience.

There are lots of vested interests involved in these debates. Murray has however given us reasons to sit back and ask, what is the best structure for the future? This is important to Australia’s future.

So let’s have some honesty and consistency in the public debate. If professionalism is important at the level of the individual then we should expect high standards of professionalism from the trustees of superannuation funds. Arguably, trustees of major funds should be held to a higher standard.