Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has issued a timetable for the government’s dealing with the recommendations from the royal commission into banking, superannuation and financial services, which aims to have all measures needing legislation introduced by the end of next year.
The opposition has accused the government of dragging its feet on putting into effect the results of the inquiry, which delivered its final report early this year.
“The need for change is undeniable, and the community expects that the government response to the royal commission will be implemented swiftly,” Frydenberg said in a statement on the timetable.
Fydenberg said that in his final report Commissioner Kenneth Hayne made 76 recommendations – 54 directed to the federal government (more than 40 of them needing legislation), 12 to the regulators, and 10 to the industry. Beyond the 76 recommendations, the government had announced another 18 commitments to address issues in the report.
The government had implemented 15 of the commitments it outlined in responding to the report, Frydenberg said. This included eight out of the 54 recommendations, and seven of the 18 additional commitments the government made. “Significant progress” had been made on another five recommendations, with draft legislation in parliament or out for comment or consultation papers produced.
The government at first accepted most of this recommendation, announcing the payment of ongoing so-called “trailing commissions” would be banned on new loans from July 2020. Upfront commissions would be the subject to a separate review. Four weeks later in March Frydenberg announced the government wouldn’t be banning trailing commissions after all. Instead, it would review their operation in three years.
Releasing the timetable, Frydenberg said the reform program was the “biggest shake up of the financial sector in three decades” and the speed of implementation “is unprecedented”.
“It will be done in a way that enhances consumer outcomes with more accountability, transparency and protections without compromising the flow of credit and competition,” he said.
He undertook to ensure the opposition was briefed on each piece of legislation before it came into parliament.
“This will begin with the offer of a briefing by Treasury on the implementation plan. Given both the government and opposition agreed to act on the commission’s recommendations, we expect to achieve passage of relevant legislation without undue delays,” he said.
He said the industry was “on notice. The public’s tolerance has been exhausted. They expect and we will ensure that the reforms are delivered and the behaviour of those in the sector reflects community expectations.”
During the conference The Conversation will publish a selection of pieces written by the authors of papers to be delivered at the conference.
Since the surprise re-election of the Coalition, there has been renewed debate about the role the “aspirational” Australian played in the final outcome. The debate is taking place against the backdrop where income inequality has been growing in most developed countries over the past half-, including in Australia.
Bureau of Statistics figures released on Friday show that the wealth of Australia’s wealthiest households has grown much faster than the wealth of the rest.
Household net worth by quintile (top fifth to bottom fifth)
Over the course of the 20th century, income equality has been U-shaped, a point noted by French economist Thomas Piketty and Australia’s Productivity Commission.
In Australia, the income share of the top 1 per cent peaked at 14% in 1950, then fell to a low of 5% in the early 1980s before climbing again to 9% by 2015.
Wealth inequality has also followed a long term U-pattern, and in many countries wealth is even more concentrated than income.
The Productivity Commission finds that in Australia, a person at in the top 10% of wealth distribution has 40 times as much wealth as a person in the bottom 10%. That person has four times as much income.
Income shares of the top 1%, by country
In a paper to be presented to the Australian Conference of Economists in Melbourne on Tuesday, my colleague Monica Jurin and I shed light on wealth inequality over the past three decades through the lens of Australia’s super rich – the richest 200 households and families.
The super rich are changing
Based on the Rich List, compiled by the Business Review Weekly since the 1980s, and now updated annually by the Australian Financial Review, we examine the importance of inherited wealth versus entrepreneurship among Australia’s super rich.
The Rich List confirms the rise in wealth inequality. In 2019, the richest 200 families accounted for 3.6% of the aggregate net worth of all Australian families, up significantly from 2.3% in 1989.
But the importance of inherited wealth appears to have diminished.
Those with inherited wealth and family businesses today make up one-third of the super rich, well below 43% in 1989, with a gradual decline over each of the past three decades. Inherited wealth by itself accounts for 37% of the Rich List’s net worth today, well below 55% in 1989.
Today, the technology sector accounts for almost 8% of the Rich List’s net worth, compared to almost none in 1989.
The results seem somewhat less egalitarian when we examine whether those on the list have appeared on it before.
They’ve more persistence, less inheritance
For instance Frank Lowy, co-founder of Westfield, is considered to be self made. But once on the list, he remained on in each of the four decades we examined.
Whatever the sources of one’s entry to the Rich List, members like Mr Lowy provide evidence of persistence. Conditional on being on the list a decade earlier, members have a slightly higher probability of remaining on it than they did in 1999, controlling for death and other factors.
They find that inherited wealth has become less important and being college educated has become more important.
In Australia we find that a substantially higher share of the richest individuals are tertiary qualified today than they were in 1989, but we are reluctant to draw strong conclusions because the entire society has greater access to tertiary education than it did in 1989.
The super rich have occupied a unique place in modern Australian culture since the emergence of conspicuous entrepreneurs and the emergence of the Rich List in the 1980s.
They are changing, and probably in a good way, even as inequality is growing.
Compulsory superannuation was sold to Australians on the basis that it would make us better off.
But as the government prepares for an independent inquiry into retirement incomes, new Grattan Institute research finds that increasing compulsory contributions from 9.5% of wages to 12%, as has been legislated, would leave many Australian workers poorer over their entire lifetimes.
They would sacrifice a significantly increased share of their lifetime wage in exchange for little or no increase in their retirement income.
The typical worker would lose about A$30,000 over her or his lifetime.
More compulsory super means lower wages
Superannuation delivers higher incomes in retirement at the expense of lower incomes while working.
Yet the superannuation lobby usually presents only one side of the pact, urging an increase in compulsory super to get the higher retirement incomes while ignoring the income that workers have to forgo to get them.
Compulsory super contributions are paid by employers. But they appear to come out of funds the employers would otherwise have spent on wages.
This means increases in compulsory super come at the expense of wage increases – something that was acknowledged when compulsory super was set up (indeed, it was part of the reason it was set up) and has been acknowledged by advocates of higher contributions, including the former opposition leader Bill Shorten).
The poorest Australians get a clear pay rise when they retire: the age pension is worth more than their after-tax income while working.
Other Grattan Institute research finds retirees are more comfortable financially than any other group of Australians and are much less likely to suffer financial stress than working-age Australians.
It needn’t lead to better retirement
So what about Middle Australia?
Despite the “magic” of compound returns, just about all of the extra income from a higher super balance at retirement would be offset by lower pension payments, due to the pension assets test.
It is always possible the pension rules will change, but it isn’t usually regarded as wise to assess proposals on the basis of changes that haven’t happened and aren’t being suggested.
Pension payments themselves would also be lower under a 12% superannuation regime. They are benchmarked to wages, which would be lower if employers have to put more into super.
The graph below shows that the big winners from higher compulsory super would be the wealthiest 20% of Australian earners, who would benefit from extra super tax breaks and would be unlikely to receive the age pension anyway.
Higher compulsory super redistributes income from the middle to the top. Middle earners would be no better off.
Over a lifetime, it could be a net loss
As higher compulsory super would leave Middle Australians no better off in retirement, but poorer while working, it follows that it would make them poorer over their entire lives.
How much poorer? We calculate that, after adjusting for inflation, the typical (median) 30-year-old Australian worker earning A$58,000 today would lose about 2.5% of wages each year and get less than a 1% boost to retirement income.
As a result, that person’s lifetime income would be almost 1% lower – about A$30,000 lower.
A post published on the Grattan Blog today gives more detail on the method we used to calculate the impact of higher compulsory super on lifetime incomes.
And it would cost the budget
Higher compulsory super might be justified if it saved the budget money on the pension – because those savings could be used to compensate middle-income earners via lower taxes or more services.
Those extra super tax breaks would dwarf any budget savings on the age pension until about 2060 – by which time there would be 80 years of budget costs from compulsory super to pay back before the whole exercise saved the government money.
Here’s the bottom line, worth keeping in mind in the lead-up to the independent inquiry: it’s hard to think of a policy less in the interests of working Australians than more compulsory super.
Another federal budget, and yet more tinkering to superannuation tax breaks. But the latest changes will only help older wealthier Australians. The losers are younger workers and taxpayers.
What’s the plan?
From July 1 2020, Australians aged 65 and 66 will be able to make voluntary pre- and post-tax superannuation contributions without having to pass the Work Test, under which they are required to work a minimum of 40 hours over a 30-day period.
About 55,000 Australians aged 65 and 66 will benefit from these changes at a cost of A$75 million over the next four years.
It’s another boost for tax planning
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg says the changes will help Australians save for their retirement.
But most 65- and 66-year-olds still working to top up their superannuation are already eligible to make voluntary super contributions, because they satisfy the Work Test. Working 40 hours over a 30-day period – or little more than one day each week – is hardly onerous.
For every dollar contributed to super that genuinely helps Australians save more for their retirement as a result of these changes, there will be many more dollars funnelled into super to make extra use of superannuation tax concessions.
The biggest winners will be wealthier retired 65- and 66-year-olds with other sources of income, such as from shares or property, which they will now be able to recycle through superannuation.
They will be able to put up to $25,000 into super from their pre-tax income and then – because super withdrawals are tax-free – take the money back out immediately. Their contributions to super are taxed at only 15%, whereas ordinary dividends or bank interest is taxed at their marginal tax rate. The tax savings can be as high as $5,000 a year.
Such strategies aren’t costless: other taxpayers must pay more, or accept fewer services, to make up the difference.
It will mean larger inheritances
The government is also allowing 65- and 66-year-olds to make three years’ worth of post-tax super contributions, or up to $300,000, in a single year.
These changes will mainly boost inheritances.
Most people who make after-tax contributions already have large super balances and typically contribute from existing pools of savings to minimise their tax.
Grattan Institute’s 2016 report, A Better Super System, found that only about 1% of taxpayers have total super account balances of more than $1 million, yet this tiny cohort makes almost one-third of all post-tax contributions.
These changes will turbo-charge so-called “recontribution strategies” that minimise the tax paid on superannuation fund balances passed on as inheritances. When inherited, super fund balances originally funded by pre-tax contributions can be taxed at 17% (including the Medicare levy), depending on the age of the deceased and the beneficiary.
To avoid this tax on their estate, individuals can withdraw superannuation funds tax-free and contribute them back as a post-tax contribution, up to the annual post-tax contributions cap of $100,000 each year.
It fails the government’s own test
In 2016, the government tried – but failed – to define the purpose of superannuation as providing “income in retirement to supplement or substitute the Age Pension”.
The proposed objective rightly implied that super should not aim to provide limitless support for savings that increase retirement incomes.
The benefits of super changes should always be balanced against the costs of achieving them. The government’s latest changes fail that test.
In its long-awaited final report on the efficiency and competitiveness of Australia’s leaky superannuation system, Australia’s Productivity Commission provides a roadmap.
Weeding out scores of persistently underperforming funds, clamping down on unwanted multiple accounts and insurance policies, and letting workers choose funds from a simple list of top performers would give the typical worker entering the workforce today an extra A$533,000 in retirement.
Even Australians at present in their mid fifties would gain an extra A$79,000.
If this government or the next cares about the welfare of Australians rather than looking after the superannuation industry it’ll use the recommendations to drive retirement incomes higher.
So why the continued talk (from Labor) about lifting compulsory super contributions from the present 9.5% of salary to 12%, and then perhaps an unprecedented 15%?
It’s probably because (and Paul Keating, the former treasurer and prime minister who is the father of Australia’s compulsory superannuation system says this) they think the contributions don’t come from workers, but from employers.
To date, they’ve been dead wrong. And with workers’ bargaining power arguably weaker than in the past, there’s no reason whatsoever to think they’ll be right from here on.
Past super increases have come out of wages
Australia’s superannuation system requires employers to make the compulsory contributions on behalf of their workers. Right now that contribution is set at 9.5% of wages and is scheduled to increase incrementally to 12% by July 2025.
So, for workers, what’s not to like?
It’s that while employers hand over the cheque, workers pay for almost all of it via lower wages. Bill Shorten, then assistant treasurer, made this point in a speech in 2010:
Because it’s wages, not profits, that will fund super increases in the next few years. Wages are the seedbed of the whole operation. An increase in super is not, absolutely not, a tax on business. Essentially, both employers and employees would consider the Superannuation Guarantee increases to be a different way of receiving a wage increase.
The Henry Tax Review and other investigations have found this is exactly what happens. Increases in the compulsory super contributions have led to wages being lower than they otherwise would have been.
Even Paul Keating, speaking in 2007, made this point. Compulsory super contributions come out of wages, not from the pockets of employers:
The cost of superannuation was never borne by employers. It was absorbed into the overall wage cost […] In other words, had employers not paid nine percentage points of wages, as superannuation contributions, they would have paid it in cash as wages.
This is more than mere theory. Compulsory super was designed to forestall wage rises. Concerned about a wages breakout in 1985, then Treasurer Paul Keating and ACTU President Bill Kelty struck a deal to defer wage rises in exchange for super contributions.
When the Super Guarantee climbed from 9% to 9.25% in 2013, the Fair Work Commission stated in its minimum wage decision of that year that the increase was “lower than it otherwise would have been in the absence of the super guarantee increase”.
The pay of 40% of Australian workers is based on an award or the National Minimum Wage and is therefore affected by the Commission’s decisions. For these people, there is no question: their wages are lower than they would’ve been if super hadn’t increased.
Where’s the evidence employers pay for super?
If wage rises came from the pockets of employers then we should see a spike in wages plus super when compulsory super was introduced, and again when it was increased. But there wasn’t one when compulsory super was introduced – a point Bill Shorten has made in the past.
When compulsory super was introduced via awards in 1986, workers’ total remuneration (excluding super) made up 63.3% of national income. By 2002, when the phase-in was complete, it made up 60.1%.
Out of the 26 countries for which the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has data, Australia recorded the tenth largest slide in the labour share of national income during the period compulsory super contributions were ramped up.
Of course, changes in super aren’t the only thing that affects workers’ share of national income.
But the size of the fall in the labour share in Australia over the period when the super guarantee was increasing isn’t consistent with the idea that employers picked up the tab for super.
Would it be different this time?
Paul Keating argues that while in the past lifting compulsory super to 9.5% was paid for from wages, a future increase to 12% today would not be:
Workers are not getting real wage increases anywhere, and can’t get them. The Reserve Bank governor makes the point every week. So the award of an extra 2.5% of super to employees via the super guarantee will give them a share of productivity they will not get in the market – without any loss to their cash wages.
But such claims are difficult to square with concerns that workers’ weak bargaining power is one of the reasons current wage growth is so weak.. If employers don’t feel pressed to give wage rises, why would they feel pressed to absorb an increase in the compulsory Super Guarantee?
And while real wages (wages adjusted for inflation) haven’t grown particularly quickly, the dollar value of wages continues to grow: by 2.2% a year over the past five years. It would be easy for employers to simply reduce those increases to offset any increase in compulsory super – as they have in the past.
And no, more contributions won’t help workers
The Grattan Institute’s recent report, Money in Retirement, showed increasing the compulsory super would primarily benefit the top 20% of Australians. It would hurt the bottom half during working life a lot more than it helps them once retired.
Their higher super contributions would not improve their retirement outcomes: their extra super income would be largely offset by lower part-pensions. What’s more, the age pension is indexed to wages. If wages grew by less (as they would as compulsory super contributions were increased) pensions would grow by less too.
Lifting compulsory super would also cost the budget A$2 billion a year in extra tax breaks, largely for high-income earners, because it is lightly taxed.
That would mean higher taxes elsewhere, or fewer services.
For low-income Australians, increasing compulsory super contributions would be a thoroughly bad deal. It means giving up wage increases in return for no boost in their retirement incomes.
A government that wanted to boost the living standards of working Australians both now and in retirement would consider carefully all of the Productivity Commission’s suggestions including this one: an independent inquiry into the whole idea and effectiveness of Australia’s regime of compulsory contributions, to be completed ahead of any increase in the Superannuation Guarantee rate .
When surveyed today the retirees of the future might be worried about their retirement, but economic growth means they will almost certainly be on even higher incomes than retirees today.
These findings might seem surprising: they contradict the repeated messaging from the financial services industry that Australians won’t have enough for retirement.
But that industry’s claims are based on research that overlooks two important points.
Retirees spend less over time
Much of the research assumes that retirees need to save enough to enable their incomes to keepclimbing throughout their retirement in line with general wage growth.
Implicitly, it assumes that a retiree needs to spend 25% more at age 90 than at age 70, after accounting for inflation.
But our analysis shows that retired Australians tend to spend less over time, even those who have money to spare.
Young retirees might chalk up frequent flyer points, but they do it less as they get older.
Spending tends to slow at around the age of 70, and falls rapidly after age 80, to just 84% of what was spent at retirement age.
Even the wealthiest retirees spend less as they age. At the other end of the scale, pensioners receive discounts on everything from car registration to rates.
Our research finds that retirees spend less over time on food, alcohol, tobacco, clothes, furnishings, transport and recreation.
They spend more on health care as they age, but Medicare largely shields them from the full costs. The modestly higher out-of-pocket costs they do pay are mainly due to rising premiums for private health insurance.
Not only do most retirees not draw down their savings throughout retirement, many add to them.
Even among pensioners, one recent study found that the median (typical) pensioner still had 90% of what he or she retired on after eight years.
They lead to misguided calls for ever-higher super contributions in order to ensure reach the point where super alone is enough to provide an adequate retirement income, even though many households will have income from other sources.
Most will have enough super
Our modelling shows that people starting work today will have adequate retirement incomes: workers of all income levels will retire on incomes at least 70% of their pre-retirement earnings – the so-called replacement benchmark used by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the Mercer Global Pension Index.
In fact the median (typical) worker can expect a retirement income of 91% of his or her pre-retirement income.
This means that many low-income Australians will actually get a pay rise on retirement.
Even workers in their 40s and 50s today – many of whom didn’t benefit from the present high rate of compulsory super contributions for their entire working lives – can expect a retirement income of about 70% of their pre-retirement incomes.
So compulsory super can stay at 9.5%
It means that that there is no obvious case to lift compulsory super contributions from 9.5% to 12% of salary as presently legislated.
Doing so might further boost retirement incomes (especially among those low and middle earners unable to compensate for the higher contributions by winding back other savings), but at the expense of providing lower incomes while working.
As the Henry Tax Review noted, higher compulsory super contributions are ultimately funded by lower wages than would have been the case, meaning lower living standards while in work.
As it happens, higher contributions would do little to change the retirement incomes of low and middle income Australians. Their extra superannuation income they provided would cut their age pension payments.
Higher compulsory contributions would also damage pensions in another way.
The age pension is indexed to wage growth which would be lower if employers diverted a steadily increasing proportion of their employee budget to super.
It means the most fervent opponents of a lift in compulsory super contributions from 9.5% to 12% ought be those people presently on the age pension.
The government ought to oppose it as well. Diverting more of what would have been wages to more lightly taxed super will strain its budget. Scrapping the proposed increase would save it an impressive A$2 billion a year.
We can find better ways to help retirees
Even if governments did feel it necessary to boost retirement incomes, lifting compulsory super contributions would be one of the worst ways to do it.
Loosening the age pension assets test taper could boost retirement incomes of around 20% of retirees, climbing to more than 70% over time. It would cost the Budget just A$750 million a year – less than half the cost to it of the proposed increase in compulsory super.
The real priority – by far the biggest bang for the buck in alleviating poverty in retirement – should be boosting Commonwealth rent assistance by 40%, providing an extra $1,410 a year for retired singles and $1,330 for retired couples.
Senior Australians who rent privately are much more likely to suffer financial stress than homeowners. And renting will become more widespread as younger generations on low incomes find themselves less able to afford homes.
Australians have been told for decades that they’re not saving enough for retirement. Such claims are inconsistent with the facts. Most of today’s workers can already expect a comfortable retirement. Forcing them and future workers to save more money for retirement that they’ll never spend is simply a recipe for larger bequests.
How we fund retirement in an ageing century ought to worry all of us.
But one group of us should be much more worried than the rest.
In a new set of research briefs published by the Centre of Excellence of Population Ageing Research, we report that most people do well out of our retirement income system and that the living standard of retirees has improved over the past decade.
In international comparisons, our system ranks highly, for good reason.
Most retirees do well
About 60% of older Australians can afford a lifestyle better than that deemed to be “modest” by widely used standards.
Households headed by baby boomers reaching retirement age between 2006 and 2016 did so with incomes 45% higher than those who retired a decade earlier.
Typical boomer households aged in their late 60s earn almost as much as they did when they were still working – only 20% less, that is, with about 80% of their working income maintained.
And their needs are lower. Lower spending in retirement is common because older households need to pay less for transport, less for working clothes, and have more time to cook.
When we included the value of living rent-free for the 80% or more of retirees who own their own home (about A$10,000 per year on average), we found older Australians live in no more poverty than working age Australians.
But not renters
The living standards of those who rent in retirement are very different. Only about 15% of older renters can afford a lifestyle better than “modest”.
Single renters are particularly badly off.
Among all older people only about 10% fall below the poverty line set at half the median income.
Among older Australians who rent, 40% fall below.
Among older Australians who rent alone, it’s more than 60%.
If that relative poverty measure seems too abstract, an absolute dollar figure might help.
Alarming research aired on the ABC in September found that, on average, aged care homes were spending $6.08 per day on food per resident.
Our research finds that among pensioners who rent alone, one quarter spend even less than that per day.
And it’s getting worse
The pension has always favoured home owners.
On the one hand it is insufficient for renters and on the other it doesn’t cut pension payments to the owners of very valuable homes, because the value of any home – no matter how big – is excluded from the pension means test.
Sydney rents have doubled over the past two decades. The consumer price index has climbed 68%.
As a result, rental assistance is less effective in reducing financial stress than it was when it was introduced, and is set to become even less effective if rents continue to climb more quickly than the price index.
And more of us look set to rent
Households headed by Australians aged 35 to 44 are now 10 percentage points less likely to own their own home than were households headed by people of the same age a generation earlier.
They might be merely postponing buying homes until they are older as more of what would have been their income is sequestered into super and they enter the workforce and retire later.