Retirement chiefs rise to prominence

By Elizabeth Fry

Two of the country's biggest asset owners surprised the industry by inviting retirement specialists into the c-suite to take charge of the de-cumulation phase of the super system.

AustralianSuper appointed Shawn Blackmore as its first chief officer retirement, and last month Australian Retirement Trust created a similar role.

Reshuffling retirement leaders to the top level is a strong statement of intent, says Allianz Retire+ head of institutional solutions Fintan Thornton.

"At the end of the day, what gets measured gets done," he says, adding that having retirement people at the top will have a big impact on the fund's direction.

"The funds are publicly declaring that retirement income is the primary purpose of the super system, and they are now reorienting their business to that end," he adds.

From where Thornton sits, these appointments are positive for the industry and the trustee boards.

"Trustees now know they have specifically accountable executives who will report to them on retirement issues. That gives substance to retirement income strategies for the future"

In the near future, he goes on to say, super funds will be able to do more in terms of guiding members to and through retirement.

As this becomes their primary focus, he could envisage our industry evolving from a 'defined contribution' system to a much more rounded 'defined outcomes' system where lifetime income is the financial outcome.

By defining member outcomes in this way, retiring members will naturally be attracted to projected retirement income scenarios that are more certain, ultimately instilling confidence in retiring Australians to spend and maintain their standard of living.

"We are already starting to see trustees making decisions that better balance investment return maximisation, longevity risk and access to capital," he notes.

"Some of this decision-making may be informed by member engagement or member surveys - which makes sense for member-based organisations. That's a big step forward from singularly focusing on 'maximising returns' - important as that is."

Thornton says the chief retirement officer role will have the same prominence - both internally and externally as the CIO or CEO roles do today.

As he sees it, It will be a connector or collaborative role to ensure all departments within a fund are focused on retirement outcomes.

"We've seen the industry and the government for the first time propose a purpose for the superannuation system, which is powerful," he states.

"It's good for society; it's good for members; and ultimately, I think it will be good for the economy as retirees start to spend their retirement savings safely and steadily, courtesy of some innovation in that space.

"In terms of support for the proposed purpose, funds have stepped up quite a bit with the certainty provided by Canberra and have a clearer sense of the guardrails around the things trustees should consider"

How much to spend?

The problem is that many retirees lack confidence in the superannuation system, and they live much more frugally than they should.

"The challenge to us as a collective is to create solutions and experiences in the build-up to retirement and into retirement that gives people the confidence to spend their savings," Thornton says.

Further, he says there are thousands of new retirees each and every week, and their combined assets are enormous and growing rapidly.

"Sadly, there are an inordinate number of Australians who are passing away with collectively massive amounts of super in their accounts."

From where he sits, people have been told for 30 years that they need a lump sum when they retire.

Given this, it is no surprise that they fixate on accumulated money even more as they approach retirement.

Thornton is convinced that members are often too scared to hand over their money to purchase, say, an annuity, because of this 30-year 'lump sum' framing.

The retirement specialist reckons one way of fixing the problem is for funds to develop products where members don't have to make lifelong decisions in one big step, having not engaged much with their superannuation funds for 20 or 30 years.

A part of the underpinning solution, he goes on to say, is for funds to transfer longevity risk to an insurance company.

Akin to group life insurance, members would pay an annual premium and then receive guaranteed lifetime income payments in retirement. This negates the need for members to 'hand over' their money.

Thornton predicts that an increasing number of Aussie super funds will team up with an insurer and offload pension scheme risk.

He views the relationship as similar to those funds have with their group life insurers, asset servicing providers or administrators.

"If super funds can provide a guarantee so that their members would never run out of money, members are more likely to feel confident about spending their savings."

The Allianz Retire+ executive is not just talking up his book.

Thornton can see several different models in the future which contain an element of insurance.

"We may see a hybrid model where some investment management is undertaken inside the super fund while working alongside an insurer,' he explains.

"Only APRA-regulated life insurance companies can provide "guarantees", hence why partnership models will likely emerge.

Digital advice

As for the role of digital, much has been said lately about the impossibility of the 16,000 financial advisers to service the growing population.

Assistant Treasurer Stephen Jones recently called it "almost impossible" for funds to meet their obligations to help members plan for retirement.

The minister blamed poor access to information and advice for "an extraordinary number" of Australians over 65 who haven't shifted their super into their retirement phase. "They're still paying tax when they otherwise wouldn't," he said at a conference.

Thornton concedes that many members contact their super fund just before retirement and are not sure what to ask.

Sadly, because of the regulatory environment, funds have been unable to respond to those inquiries.

"And so there's been an element of paralysis for many who are unable to then engage a financial adviser."

Add into the mix, many funds have been focusing on consolidation.

"As a takeover target, management would be hesitant to develop retirement solutions. Similarly, an acquiring fund might feel the same which is completely understandable.

For many people, money is left in the accumulation phase.

"It's not a good position, but that's the position we're in," he says.

Superfunds are certainly starting to talk about doing more for their members.

How they go about that will depend largely on the regulatory settings currently under review but also on data.

Says Thornton: "Some funds have had relatively sparse data on members perhaps because individuals defaulted into the fund and may have had little or no engagement. However, other funds have built up a lot of information points about their members."

"I think what they're going to need to do is match people up with the right retirement solutions based on the information they have and allow members to choose alternatives if they so wish.

"The status quo is to 'do nothing' until instructed otherwise which is tax-inefficient and simply reinforces the lump sum mindset even though the consensus view is that the purpose of the system is to provide a retirement income."

He thinks that will be a big step forward from where we are today.