Chris Brycki explains why not all industry super funds are created equal

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Stockspot has just released its 5th annual Fat Cat Funds report which analyses more than 2,000 super funds and 2,000 managed funds to see how they performed over five years.

Once again industry super funds beat retail super funds across 10 of 11 investment categories. Industry funds had a smaller percentage of Fat Cat Funds and more Fit Cat Funds.

(Stockspot rates funds as either Fat Cat, for those with larger fees, and Fit Cat, for lower charges.)

The findings are consistent with APRA’s figures which found industry funds made up six of the top 10 funds since 2006. Despite their enormous size, all of the big banks did worse than at least 99 super funds over the past 10 years.

There’s no doubt that industry funds do better than bank funds, but when comparing like-for-like investments the lead is less obvious. It’s why we decided to question why industry funds aren’t doing even better.

First let’s look at why industry funds beat retail funds

The reason is simple, on average industry funds have lower fees and more growth assets. Their advantage over retail funds can be entirely explained by a combination of lower costs and higher risk. Removing these factors, industry and retail funds perform in much the same way because they generally use the same fund managers and own the same underlying investments.

What’s the problem with industry funds?

Despite doing better than retail funds on average, what’s noticeable is the huge difference in the performance between industry funds over time. Here are the top five and bottom five performing industry funds over the 10 years to June 2016 according to data from the regulator, APRA.

Best performing industry super funds

Worst performing industry super funds

Clearly you need to be selective even if you’re in an industry fund as the differences in returns can be huge, 50% or more over 10 years. There are some other interesting takeouts from this.

Size isn’t an issue

The relationship between size and performance is weak. Funds with less than $1 billion struggle because their costs are too high but scale benefits tend to disappear between $5 billion to $10 billion.

Only one of the largest industry super funds made the top five list (Unisuper). REST, Australian Super, HESTA and Sun Super were all absent despite being the largest industry funds and controlling a combined $220 billion of assets.

Our Fat Cat Funds Report shows many smaller industry super funds performed as well or better compared to larger funds. BUSS Super Queensland at $4 billion of size performed about 0.5% per year better than AustralianSuper ($100 billion) over 5 and 10 years.

Advertising doesn’t help current members

Industry funds’ explanation for spending millions of member dollars on advertising and sponsorships each year is that size will drive economies of scale and better member outcomes. The data doesn’t back this up. Even at $100 billion of member funds AustralianSuper has been increasing their administration fees. According to their annual report admin and operating expenses rose from $103 million in 2006 when it had 1.3 million members, to $262 million in 2016 with 2.1 million members. That’s a jump from $79 per member to $124 per member in a decade.

Slow to accept the benefits of indexing

The performance differences between industry funds highlights a concerning fact — despite their to-benefit-members mantra, industry super still allocate the majority of their funds to relatively expensive active fund managers whose performance as a whole do not justify their costs.

This continues despite the evidence that active stock picking and market timing deliver worse outcomes for investors. Over the 10 years to 30 June 2017, 75% of Australian large cap active share managers, 90% of international active equity managers and 86% of bond managers underperformed.

Here are four important questions to ask your industry fund.

Do they advertise, and if so why?

AustralianSuper spent $11 million on advertising over the last two years and yet their investment performance barely gets them into the top 10 industry funds. Meanwhile their admin costs have been rising not falling. The idea that TV ads and sports sponsorship leads to more members, lower costs and better benefits just doesn’t stack up.

How much do they invest in unlisted assets?

Over the past 20 years many industry funds have been increasing their investment into unlisted assets. These types of investments can do well and add diversification to a portfolio but they have added risks since they can’t be sold easily and their market value is hard to determine when fund members want to get in or out. This was apparent in 2008-9 when some industry funds were reported to have refused redemptions and others like MTAA super lost $1.6 billion due to hedging.

Do they use index investing?

Scale is all about driving down cost for the end investor. It’s bizarre that most industry funds don’t invest with the world’s largest investment manager. Vanguard has a 40 year history of reducing fees for clients as a mutual organisation owned by its investors. Most industry funds don’t invest with Vanguard and still use active managers, despite all data showing that strategy doesn’t work.

Will they show how their active fund managers are performing?

Looking at dozens of industry funds we couldn’t find a single one that had provided transparency around how active management was benefiting their members. Fees eat into returns and active managers charge higher fees than indexing so if they are being used, members deserve to know how much they are being paid and whether their performance is providing value for money.

The best outcomes for members, not just slightly better…

Industry funds position themselves as the low-cost alternative to retail super funds. Compared to retail funds, industry funds win hands down, but by global standards they are eye wateringly expensive. Less advertising and more indexing would save Australians billions more each year.

Chris Brycki, the founder and CEO of Stockspot, a robo-adviser fund, made his first investment when he was a 10-years-old.

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