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We need to talk about super, not just first home buyers

Allowing people to raid their superannuation early is likely to have significant unintended consequences. Image sourced from

Home ownership is an important protection against poverty in retirement, and it has been suggested superannuation should be accessible to fund a deposit to help people enter the property market.

Proponents of such a scheme point to the Canadian and New Zealand models, which allow withdrawals to purchase property. These comparisons need to be made carefully.

The Canadian retirement income model does not require mandatory superannuation, and HSBC reports that currently about half of Canadians do not contribute to a Registered Retirement Savings Plan. In the case of New Zealand, the NZ Kiwisaver is a relatively new retirement savings plan, and the default rate of contributions is 3% compared to 9.5% in Australia.

There are two reasons why withdrawing superannuation for a home deposit can be counterproductive.

Firstly, the property market is unregulated and the current housing boom is a direct result of competition for a scarce resource. If first home buyers are allowed to withdraw from superannuation funds, the effect would be to increase competition, thus driving prices up further. This was the effect of the first home stamp duty subsidies that were available over the last decade.

Secondly, accessing superannuation balances would negate the effect of compounding returns over the years to retirement. The average balance of an Australian aged 30 to 34 years in 2011-12 was A$27,772. The Canadian model allows a person and their partner to each withdraw C$25,000 from their superannuation, repaying it over 15 years. If adopted here, this would effectively wipe out the superannuation balance of each of them and would still be less than 10% of the median house price in the major Australian cities. Repayments would need to be in addition to mandatory contributions, and after mandatory contributions, HECS repayments and mortgage repayment, this could result in financial distress for borrowers.

Capital growth could give some protection from lower superannuation balances, but in the context of the family home, the gain would not be realised until the owner(s) downsized, as the usual pattern of home ownership is to sell and repurchase in the same market.

Despite widespread discussion about the proposal, government representatives have said they have “no plans” to change the rules on accessing super.

Lack of reform

The superannuation system is linked to both taxation and the pension system, but since 2007 it has been effectively quarantined from reform.

Contributions and investment earnings in a complying, taxed, superannuation fund are taxed at 15%. Withdrawals are also taxed at reduced rates, and since 2007 have been tax exempt for persons over the age of 60.

Conceptually superannuation is a form of long-term savings that displaces other forms of savings and, according to the ABS is the major financial investment held by most Australians. Our superannuation system is mandatory for employees, so employees earning more than A$450 per month have no choice as to whether they will save through superannuation.

The legal requirement is placed on the employer, but the economic reality is that superannuation is imposed on employees: it is reflected in the take-home pay of employees, notwithstanding the 1987 trade-off between award wages and superannuation.

In the case of a high income earner, the 15% tax rate on superannuation encourages savings into superannuation. However, low income earners who pay income tax rates less than 15% find that most of their savings are locked up in superannuation without any tax concessions. This affects their ability to save for a deposit on a house, or to have funds available in an emergency.

Superannuation and tax incentives

The Henry Review considered the problem of investment bias, although the government excluded tax exempt payments to persons over 60 from the terms of reference. It identified a clear incentive for a high income earner to put money into superannuation, displacing other investment, and a disincentive for low income earners.

Contribution caps limit the amount that can be contributed in superannuation that can subsequently be withdrawn tax free. However they are much higher than the SGC rate giving room for a high income earner to divert savings into superannuation: at the current mandated SGC level of 9.5%, a person would have to earn over A$300,000 pa to breach the non-concessional cap. A member can also contribute up to A$180,000 pa of non-concessional (tax paid) contributions. The tax benefit is that income earned by the superannuation fund on that investment is also taxed at 15% instead of the member’s marginal tax rate. In a self managed superannuation fund the member can then direct the investment strategy personally while taking advantage of the tax shelter.

Since 2013 contributions by very high income earners have been taxed at 30%, but the threshold of A$300,000 (including superannuation) ensures this only applies to a minority of taxpayers.

Balancing super and the pension

The balance between superannuation and the Age Pension is critical to funding retirement income. The mandatory superannuation system was proposed as a means of supplementing, not replacing the pension, and the 2015 Intergenerational Report predicts that by 2055 spending on the Age Pension will be at similar levels to now, but higher numbers of pensioners will be receiving a part pension. In 2011-2012 the average superannuation balance at retirement was A$197,000 for males and A$105,000 for women. Although it is increasing most retirees will at some stage need some support from the Age Pension.

Retirees can game the system by taking substantial tax exempt lump sums remaining eligible for higher rates of pension. When a superannuation fund goes into pension phase, the member is required to withdraw a minimum amount, based on the age of the retiree, but there is no cap. The Murray Report echoed the Henry Review when it again recommended the development of more comprehensive income based retirement products.

While superannuation balances generally are low, lump sum withdrawals can be ascribed to paying down debt and transition to retirement costs, and there is a growing concern that people approaching retirement take on additional debt in the expectation that they will be able to pay it off when they receive their superannuation.

The tax exempt status of superannuation pensions is a more pressing concern. When the member retires and a superannuation fund goes into pension phase both the income of the fund and the amount paid to the recipient are exempt from income tax. In the 2014 year this cost the budget bottom line A$16.3b in foregone revenue and was the 3rd highest tax expenditure. It is difficult to see how this tax expenditure can be maintained indefinitely.

Where to from here?

The fiscal risk inherent in the superannuation system is clear, as highlighted in the Intergenerational Report and the Murray Report.

The options for reform include equalising tax rates across the accumulation and pension phase of superannuation; imposing tax on superannuation accounts with a high balance; taxing contributions by applying a rebate to the member’s marginal rate of tax; lifetime caps on non-concessional contributions to superannuation funds;and making a regular income stream more attractive than lump sums.

The political issue is that governments are not willing to propose reforms that will impact on the current generation of retirees, and continue to quarantine the retirement system from serious review. Until we can openly talk about the lack of sustainability in the retirement income system, we will continue to impose a fiscal burden on future generations.

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