Budget 2018: Annual auditing requirements of Self-managed Super Funds to be reduced

The details are sparse, the mention brief. But there at the top of page 41 in budget paper number two it sits.

“The Government will change the annual audit requirement to a three-yearly requirement for self-managed superannuation funds with a history of good record keeping and compliance,” it states.

According to the budget papers, it’s all about reducing red tape for the trustees of self-managed funds.

A seemingly minor detail among hundreds of pages dripping with billion-dollar policy shifts, it was a change that escaped the army of commentators assembled in Parliament House last Tuesday to grill Treasurer Scott Morrison on the details of his third federal budget.

It was an odd decision for two reasons. For a start, big, professionally run funds still must be audited every year. And then there’s the timing.

Just two days later, on Thursday, a different mob, and an angry one at that, gathered at Melbourne’s Grand Hyatt on Collins Street baying for blood.

There, AMP shareholders dealt a savage blow to the organisation. Almost 62 per cent of shareholders voted against the pay deals for the director and senior management, the biggest ever for a top 50 company.

The meeting followed a month of turmoil culminating in the exit of the chief executive, senior counsel, chairman and three other directors, after shocking revelations at the banking royal commission that unearthed years of disregard for AMP’s own clients and investors, along with contempt for the corporate law enforcement agency.

Shareholders overflowing out of AMP AGM in Melbourne, May 10 2018

Perhaps it is just an unfortunate coincidence. But in the past six years, AMP quietly has made a concerted push into the self-managed superannuation fund sector, and now is the biggest operator providing administration and a raft of other services.

Less oversight — more advice

The self-managed industry grew out of distrust. Enormous fees coupled with generally poor or, at best, ordinary investment performance convinced many wealthy individuals to take their retirement savings into their own hands.

By the early part of this century, the self-managed segment was the fastest growing part of the superannuation industry. More than 1 million Australians now have taken their superannuation affairs into their own hands.

Many of the new entrants were financially naive, with small balances and even less understanding of the administrative responsibilities required to run a fund.

According to the Productivity Commission, by June 2016 self-managed super funds had $622 billion under management, more than the banks and AMP which accounted for $546 billion.

Rather than attempt to fight it, AMP — the country’s biggest wealth manager — decided a decade ago that it should instead jump aboard the juggernaut, offering an array of services from administration and banking to investment.

It’s worked. This year AMP’s wealth management division generated $391 million, with a large slice coming from self-managed clients through brands like Cavendish, SuperCorp, SuperIQ, Multi-Port and YourSMSF.

Malcolm Turnbull stands with his back to the camera. He is facing a large media pack with lights, cameras and microphones.

AMP is now the biggest operator in the self-managed services sector and, until recently, was crowing about its expansion plans.

“In 2018, AMP is targeting additional revenue equivalent to 2 per cent of AUM (assets under management) from its Advice and SMSF businesses,” the company said in its annual report, released just a few months ago, shortly before the sensational revelations at the royal commission.

“This investment will also help Australians get more advice, more often through our goals-based operating system which will also improve productivity and drive new revenue streams.”

More advice, more often. It’s a hot topic at the royal commission right now.

The tax trap

Large, professionally run superannuation funds are overseen by the banking regulator, the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority.

Self-managed funds, by contrast, are regulated by the Australian Tax Office. While many funds outsource the administration, the fund trustees — usually the beneficiaries — make the investment decisions.

Until now, self-managed funds have been required to have their affairs audited by an independent auditor. It’s not just for financial transactions. The audit also monitors compliance issues.

Given the enormous tax concessions superannuation enjoys, independent auditors have been required to ensure beneficiaries or trustees are not attempting to game the system, to ensure the government isn’t being dudded on tax.

That’s been made more difficult by last year’s decision to introduce a $1.6 million cap on superannuation balances. Under that cap, any investment earnings are tax free.

But earnings on any amount above the cap are taxed at 15 per cent.

With audits required in only one in three years, some self-managed retirees could succumb to the temptation to manipulate asset values or not properly record cash injections so they stay under the cap and avoid tax.

Those yet to retire may be tempted to withdraw funds temporarily for personal use and repay the cash before the third year when the audit is done.

Retirees at risk

There’s also the potential for self-managed retirees to become prey to an industry that has rewritten the definition of scandal.

In 2009, thousands of self-managed super funds were fleeced by Trio Capital which collapsed owing $176 million, after cash was funnelled offshore. Financial advisers from Wollongong to Port Augusta tipped around 6,000 super fund trustees into the Astarra Capital fund.

While one of the architects, Shawn Richards, served jail over the affair, some retirees found themselves deeply out of pocket.

AMP board at 2018 AGM
While APRA-regulated funds — bank, industry and government funds — cover anyone who has suffered a loss from fraud or theft via levy that is imposed on the funds, no such protection exists for self-managed funds.

A joint parliamentary inquiry into the Trio collapse in 2012 reinforced that distinction. While the government forked out $55 million to those who lost out through APRA-monitored funds, it recommended self-managed super investors receive nothing.

Given the litany of atrocities within the financial services industry, and its scant disregard for its own clients, it seems odd to be scaling back oversight of almost a third of Australia’s $2.6 trillion superannuation industry.

A little bit of red tape can go a long way.

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