Superannuation & government deficits: political risk is back

Watching the Obama government fiddle around with the various creditors in Chrysler (and in other government bailouts where political calculations are coming into play in Australia and the UK) it’s pretty obvious that there is ‘political risk’ coming back into investment in a big way.

It is something that Bill Gross at Pimco was also keen to stress in his latest podcast, “2+2=4”, that equity and debt holders may be looking at a highly regulated future where the ‘dead hand of government’ plays a significant role in setting future growth rates and income distributions (no doubt Mr Gross would be horrified by this oversimplification).

Another way to look at it is simply that the debt being run up in stimulus packages may create an irresistible temptation for governments to tap funding sources which currently might appear to be protected.

One obvious group of people who are being ‘stuffed’ in the current environment are holders of cash, with interest rates of .5% in the UK or a (comparatively) generous 3% in Australia, perhaps a realization which may play a small part in the recent market runup.  In a future environment it may be that holders of non-inflation protected assets are also going to get stuffed.

As someone I know puts it more succintly, “the older generation are going to get stuffed somehow.”

However one other obvious source for governments to target are Super funds and pension funds.

As Kris Sayce puts it well in ‘Money Morning’ with regard to Australia:

“perhaps the biggest giveaway is the $1 trillion held in private superannuation accounts. At the moment these balances are almost untouchable by the government. It is up to the fund managers and trustees of the funds to decide where the money is invested.

That is a position that no government will allow to remain for too long. Not when there is a $300 billion public sector debt to be paid off. And a $100 billion public sector pension liability to be financed.

Not to mention all the increases in welfare payments that will arise in the next few years.”  

Given the time horizons involved we should all be thinking about what the government might do to get their hands on it to pay their bills. Mr Sayce’s view is that there may be inducements from the government to “swap their defined contribution super plans in return for a defined benefit government pension”, however we probably need to consider other possibilities as well. For example:

  • could the government change the tax rates on super funds from 15%?
  • could the government set maximum super fund sizes?
  • could the government change the cap on non-concessional contributions (currently $150k)?
  • could the government change the preservation age (the age most of us can access their super) – it’s been suggested that preservation age move to 67 by the interim Henry Review?
  • could the government further target temporary residents (it is already taking their unclaimed super within 6 months of them departing Australia)?
  • introduce tax on super income streams after preservation age (60), currently for most people there is no tax if the cash was taxed ‘going’ in).

From the government’s point of view there are  two risks:

  1. loss of votes amongst a segment of the population that is getting larger (retirees)
  2. reducing the savings rate (pretty much what it wants to do at the moment anyway and of course a mandatory super contribution level in effects sets a savings rate the government can fiddle with as well)

The level of risk overall should a key factor (especially for wealthier individuals given the budget changes to super) in whether you choose to put your money into the superannuation sandbox or operate outside it.

Posted under investment strategies, Risk

This post was written by mike on May 18, 2009

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