Paralyzed by choice down under

In Australia, superannuation is a long-term savings and investment vehicle that, like the 401(k) in the U.S., provides tax-advantaged retirement benefits for individuals. Since summer 2005, a overwhelming majority of Australian workers have been able to choose an investment fund through superannuation. (Prior to 2005, fund selection was largely made by a trustee of some kind.) With more than 200 fund options to choose from, investors have been overwhelmed. (Just think how overwhelmed they would have been if they had lived in Sweden where a privatized version of social security yielded almost 800 fund options!) In a new report on the policy, the Australia Institute levels some harsh criticism.

The fact that fewer than ten per cent of workers actively choose a fund should not come as a surprise. Indeed, as little as four per cent of workers switch super funds each year and around half of this is ‘passive’ choice due to job change or fund closure. Because participation is compulsory, a great many fund members, and particularly those a long way from retirement, do not take a keen interest in their super. Being automatically enrolled in a retirement savings system is not conducive to active consumer decision-making.

Choice of Fund has also been largely unsuccessful in lowering the number of multiple accounts, one of the most serious problems for superannuation policy-makers. In fact, the number of accounts per employee has actually increased, suggesting that choice has not ‘empowered’ consumers to take even the most basic action to improve their superannuation arrangements. Three years on, the failure to promote consumer-centred competition has resulted in considerable waste across the super system. Average fees levied by fund managers have not fallen, remaining at around 1.25 per cent of funds under management (equating to around one per cent of GDP), and significant fee and performance variations persist between not-for-profit funds and for-profit (retail) funds. Moreover, it is estimated that Australians pay around $2.4 billion a year in commissions on superannuation assets, including $862 million on their compulsory superannuation contributions. Financial outcomes for workers can vary considerably depending on the fund that their employer nominates as the default fund.

Read the full paper for six design principles for a default rule, including a somewhat controversial argument that default options should “focus especially on the needs of people who are a long way from retirement, or whose accumulated benefits are relatively modest,” because of the poor decisions that people make in situations where the effects are not felt until well into the future. Because of the complexity of investment decisions, and the number of amatuers among all age groups, the default rule should be issue No. 1 for a choice architect regardless of whether the employee is 23 or 63.


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4 Responses to “Paralyzed by choice down under”

  1. Sir W Scott Says:

    It would be good if members of the Industry Super Network would practice what they preach.

    A significant problem with Super Choice in Australia is the large industry funds (which are sort of like NGO’s) do not provide any useful information to assess the quality of their service, funds management or insurance options. Neither do they encourage competition amongst their coterie of member institutions. As a case in point, the following link is to their financial planning service which provides a comparison service.

    Presumably, it is in the Industry Super Network’s interest to co-author this report so that their member institutions would benefit from being selected as the default fund. This should be recognised as a conflict of interest.

    I worry that the ideas put forth in “the Nudge” will be used by a generation of bureaucrats to push their value systems onto others. Smacks of the Republic.

    Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchman.

  2. Jake Says:

    The title had me wondering if this was going to be about sex changes.

  3. Keith Says:

    Superannuation in the UK usually means a final-salary pension scheme, almost exlusively offered by the public sector – local and central government, health service, teachers, etc. It used to be no big deal, but in the current climate has become a huge perk, and is already under pressure to be phased out.

  4. Mukundan Says:

    I thought that the article was about sex when I saw the title.

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