As the 10th anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers approaches, it’s worth noting that not every sector was a loser out of the global financial crisis.
One of the biggest winners was self-managed superannuation funds.
Because as global stock markets crashed in 2008, taking the world’s retirement savings with them, hundreds of thousands of Australians felt dudded.
They thought they could do better by taking control of their super in their own private fund.
Kevin Connolly, a Cairns-based spray painter, was one of them, after losing thousands of dollars.
“The fund we were in at that time not only lost that money, but charged us fees on top, we thought, oh, we could do that much better,” Mr Connolly told the ABC.
He and his wife set up their own, self-managed super fund, borrowing $140,000 to buy a rental property as one of the main assets of the fund.
Self-managed super funds were a big winner after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. (Chip East: Reuters)
“We had a lot of experience in renovating properties and re-selling them and so we looked at a property there that we could buy cheaply, renovate for a small amount of money and gain a lot of value,” he said.
And the Connollys were not alone.
Between 2008 and 2012, the number of self-managed super funds grew by 27 per cent to nearly half a million.
That was more than 40 per cent of the growth of the whole superannuation system.
Deborah Ralston, chair of the Self-Managed Superannuation Fund Association, is not surprised, using recent events as a guide to how people were thinking.
“You’ve only got to look at some of the excesses that we’ve seen through the royal commission to know why people want to be in touch with their retirement savings and to take careful control of it,” Professor Ralston said.
The global financial crisis coincided with the Howard government lifting the ban on superannuation funds borrowing money.
As a result, self-managed super funds have rushed to take advantage and racked up $32 billion in debt in little more than a decade.
The Financial System Inquiry in 2014 recommended that borrowing by superannuation funds be banned.
It’s a view shared by Saul Eslake, the former ANZ Bank chief economist, who describes the decision to allow super funds to borrow as “the dumbest tax policy of the last two decades.”
“The last thing Australians really needed in the last 20 years is yet another vehicle or incentive for Australians to borrow more money in order to speculate on property prices continuing to rise,” Mr Eslake said.
Professor Ralston has a different view, pointing out that self-managed super is worth $700 billion, which she says, puts the $32 billion in borrowing into some sort of perspective.
“It’s around 6 per cent of assets,” she said.
“Of that, about 4 per cent is commercial property and about 2 per cent is residential property, so it’s still a very small component.”
That may be true, but interest rates are rising, and property prices are falling.
Overlaying that is the perennial problem of property spruikers trying to persuade people to borrow big to buy, and tip their newly acquired, heavily leveraged, property into a self-managed super fund.
Mr Connolly says spruikers are not the only culprits.
“The problem was, and we’ve seen over the years, that banks lend money when perhaps they shouldn’t,” he said.
Super funds hold a different type of debt
A super fund borrowing to buy a property is different to you and me borrowing to buy the house we live in.
Super fund borrowing is known as “limited recourse” — which means if the fund can’t pay off the loan, the bank can’t go after any other assets — just the property in question.
In the United States, limited recourse borrowing is prevalent for owner-occupied homes.
It was at the heart of the sub-prime mortgage fiasco 10 years ago, which morphed into the global financial crisis.
Whilst not wanting to be alarmist, Saul Eslake is concerned with what he’s seeing now in self-managed super funds with their limited recourse borrowing.
“You might have thought that someone would have heard the term ‘limited-recourse borrowing’ and recognised that there were some significant risks associated with it that we could have done without in the Australian context.”
And while those risks at the moment are small — if the current rate of borrowing continues for the next decade — self-managed super fund debt will have ballooned to more than $220 billion.
Which means those risks are rising.