Don’t touch my dividends, Dude

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Photo: “How will we afford dog food without the franking credits from our dividends?” pixabay.com, CC Mike Flynn

There have been few occasions when dividends made it on to the front pages or lead item TV news. The first time was when Treasurer Paul Keating introduced the dividend imputation scheme in 1987, largely as a way of eliminating the double-taxing of company dividends. From that day, Australian investors were given franking credits on the dividends they received on their shares. This had the welcome effect of boosting the investment return for the investor or super fund.  It was just the sort of incentive needed to encourage Australians to prepare for their retirement and aim to become self-funded retirees.

Keating’s scheme did not, however, include the cash refund of the franking credit component of the dividend, which was introduced by John Howard and Peter Costello in 2001.

The second time dividend imputation was ‘trending’ was last week when Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said if Labor gets back into power he would scrap the current system. While emphasising Labor would keep dividend imputation, he said the plan was to scrap excess cash refunds on tax that was never paid in the first place,

The main targets are people with super fund balances of $1 million and more. There are plenty of those distributed among the large super fund managers but also around 30% of the self-managed fund sector are in that category.

In 2017, 1.12 million Australians were members of a self-managed super fund. There were almost 600,000 funds with assets totalling $696.7 billion. About 30% of SMSF assets are held in Australian shares, the ones that pay fully franked (tax-paid) dividends to investors.

What Mr Shorten’s plan appears to lack is a sliding scale which would exempt retirees whose fund balance is below a certain threshold or whose franking credit refunds are below the average ($5,000 a year).

A 2015 study which set out to debunk the myth that one needs a minimum $1 million to retire said that half of Australia’s workers approaching retirement have less than $100,000 in super. Three years hence, the proportionate numbers won’t have changed that much. The study by the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees (AIST) sets out to educate people that super is designed to work in tandem with the aged pension and that it’s OK to do that. Even a low super balance of $150,000 can nicely augment your pension.

Yet Bill Shorten says some funds are paying zero tax but picking up a $2.5 million refund cheque. At face value, that would seem to be a loophole worth closing. But at the other end of the scale are individual SMSF members with low fund balances who are undoubtedly already receiving a Centrelink part-pension. The shortfall caused by scrapping cash refunds on dividends will inevitably be recovered via a tweaking of government pension calculations on income and assets. Those who do not qualify for the pension will lose the lot.

Just how important a subject this is for retirees is shown in the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia (ASFA) superannuation statistics: 1.427 million individuals received regular superannuation income in 2015-2016. Weekly payments averaged from $328 (term annuity), $496 (account-based) and $616 (defined benefit). Franking credit refunds on dividends from the ATO no doubt contributed to these payments.

Some industry super funds have come out in favour of Labor’s plan, but there is plenty of opposition, though so far there is no detail on which to base a counter argument.

ASFA says the proposal could have a significant impact on low-income retirees both inside and outside the superannuation system.

Chief executive Dr Martin Fahy said the system already has a $1.6 million cap in the retirement phase and reforms to superannuation and  retirement funding are working but they need time to bed down.

“If there is a concern about individuals with large retirement savings receiving the benefit of refundable imputation credits then this would be better addressed by measures more closely linked to retirement balance,” he said.

Currently, the Australian Taxation Office demands that if SMSF Trustees draw a Simple Pension, it must be a minimum 5% of assets (rising through increments to 14% for those aged 95 and over (!). For example, a fund with two members under the age of 80 and a balance of $450,000 must pay its members a minimum of $25,000 p.a. Providing their other assessable assets and/or income is under the threshold, they can also receive a part pension from Centrelink which could bump their annual income to around $45,000, (somewhere between a modest living and a comfortable retirement). The upside (for the country) in this fiscal strategy is that earnings will (hopefully) keep the members’ balances in the black for as long as possible. This in itself eases the burden on the aged pension system.

And if you need extra cash for a car, a bucket list trip to the Antarctic or to pay a ransom to a hacker, you can take a lump sum. If you’re Homeland’s Carrie Matheson, track down the troll, beat him up and demand he unlock the computer. (He just threw that in for light relief, Ed).

Policy on the run

You will forgive me for liberally quoting other sources on this thorny subject. The ALP has not published a policy paper or issued a media release. The only thing you will find is on Mr Shorten’s website, tucked away under the category: ‘Bill’s Opinion Pieces’.

I initially found Bill’s piece on a website run by the authority on all things super, Trish Power. Power, starting from the same position as all, except for Fairfax Media, which ‘has seen’ a policy draft, suggests it has all the hallmarks of ‘policy on the run’.

Trish Power’s website is a good place to visit if you want to avoid the scaremongering stories in the tabloids and current affairs TV. I bought a copy of her book “DIY Super for Dummies” and found it invaluable when starting our SMSF back in 2006. It may be overstating to say the promise of franking credit refunds was one of the attractions, but nonetheless it was.

Power and other guest writers are following this story while it remains a live issue so if you have a vested interest, here’s the link:

It does seem as if Bill Shorten is hanging his hat on this particular peg and plans to leave it there.

“When this (cash refund) first came in, it cost Australian taxpayers about $500 million a year,” he wrote. “Within the next few years, it’s going to cost $8 billion a year, more than the Commonwealth spends on public schools or childcare. It’s three times what we spend on the Australian Federal Police.”

You can see where he is shining his head torch when he writes that 50% of tax refunds go to SMSFs with balances of more than $2.4 million. Fine, stick it to the top end of town, but look further into this dodgy policy, Bill, and you will see that unless you giveretirees on modest incomes a break, they will be forced to rely more on the public purse. They will resent that and in turn resent you.

FOMM back pages: http://bobwords.com.au/super-end-week/

 

 

The naked retiree and life in the ‘Lucky Country’

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Retirees on park bench – Image by Just call me Mo https://flic.kr/p/eiewLK

Now that the naked retiree headline has got you in, time to say a quick hello from Stradbroke Island where I am taking a couple of weeks out with family. Today let me introduce you to guest blogger Kathryn Johnston who has a few thoughts to share on how retirees are getting on in the “Lucky Country.” Kathryn wrote this, the first in an occasional series, on New Year’s Day, coinciding with a new pension regime for retirees.

By Kathryn Johnston

This post titled “the naked retiree” is the beginning of a perspective of what is happening in Australia for older Australians. What does it mean to be a naked retiree? It is not about going to Alexandria Bay Beach on the Sunshine Coast or skinny dipping in a backyard pool. It is about the political landscape in Australia and its impost on older Australians. Politicians are our country’s custodians. They are elected to manage our country, our wealth, our health, our future.

As an older Australian I am interested in how older Australians are faring in this “great” country of Australia. Even while I write these words “great country” I ask, are older Australian’s getting a “fair go”? In 1964 when Donald Horne’s book “The Lucky Country” was released most of the populace understood he used the term ironically. Horne penned the words “Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck.” Over time, others misinterpreted Horne’s message and have used the term “lucky country” to mean we have the best of everything in Australia. In Australia, today, as we live on borrowed money and older Australian’s live on borrowed time we find we are not so “lucky”.

My question is “why are older Australians subject to ‘unfair’ political decisions made law through the parliament, laws that no politician will ever be subject to?” The decisions have been made and older Australians are the target and method for “getting the budget back on track”. The catch-cry is that without the changes to age pension entitlements commencing today – 1 January 2017, the age pension will no longer be sustainable in the decades ahead. Is there another way?

This matter first came to my attention when I was in Tasmania in October. There was an article in The Mercury newspaper titled “retiree battles to stop pension cuts”. Ron Tiltman, 76 years of West Hobart tells how he will be affected by aged pension cuts. From 2017 he is $14,000 worse off a year. For Mr Tiltman he decided to take his superannuation in cash after his partner and former teacher became ill with cancer. After her death, his entitlements under the current rules were he would receive $33,000 a year of her defined benefit superannuation and a part age pension of $580 a year. At the start of 2016 Mr Tiltman’s pension was cut to $270 and as of today, he will not receive any government pension. The Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia (ASFA) benchmarks the annual budget needed for Australians to live a modest and comfortable lifestyle. These are detailed below:

ASFA Retirement Standard   Annual living costs        Weekly living costs

Couple – modest $34,216 $658
Couple – Comfortable $59,160 $1,138
Single – Modest $23,767 $457
Single – Comfortable $43,062 $828

For Mr Tiltman to live a comfortable standard of living, which is what he planned for, he will need a yearly budget of $43,062. Now, under the government changes to the age pension, he must live a more modest lifestyle. As he said “it was implied that it would only be wealthy people affected – this is just wrong. Many of these people (i.e. those affected by the changes) are on very modest incomes and in fact 68% of those affected have a defined benefit income of less than $35,000.” Further, he said “this has hurt me – I’ve paid my taxes and now you see these politicians walking out of their jobs with huge pensions of their own” [1].

On 17 December, 2016 I read a letter to the editor of the Toowoomba Chronicle from Ray Harch who explained how he and his wife’s pension will be cut by more than $130. In his words “a great Christmas present”. If they had purchased a retirement unit at $500,000 they would have been eligible for a full pension but they chose to keep some money aside for unforeseen events as they aged. He questioned why older Australians should be penalised, those who had saved and planned for a more comfortable retirement. As he said the government “while at the same time wasting billions on other, in many cases, stupid programs”.

Then in the Brisbane Courier Mail it was reported that “half of older Australians fear they are ‘financially unprepared’ for retirement with looming pension changes. More than a quarter of Australians aged 55 and over are worried they will not be able to afford food or household bills, new research has shown.”[2]

One of the most telling stories [3] I have read in recent months is from Bob Parry, a pensioner who has more than 60 years’ experience as an accountant. Mr Parry was so angry about the changes he wrote to the Prime Minister, Mr Malcolm Turnbull. Mr Parry did several calculations and found that a single pensioner who had total assets of $541,295 under the “old” rules would receive a part pension of $9,761 per year but under the “new” rules they would lose their entire part pension. Their fortnightly income would drop from $955 to $579 a fortnight. Similarly, a pensioner couple who own their own home with joint total assets of $814,128 under the “old” rules receive $14,065 per year. Under the “new” rules their fortnightly income would drop from $1480 to $939.

Under the Turnbull government, whatever way you look at it, it is a mean-spirited cut for older Australians. Those who have worked conscientiously over their lifetime and gone without, in so many areas, will no longer have a comfortable retirement.

Due to the cuts and changes, many older Australians will soon be “skint” with savings eroded as they dip into their capital. The changes will make every older Australian spend their savings until ALL older Australians are in the same “paupers” pool relying on the full pension and a less than modest lifestyle. The government changes are successful in one area, that is, in penalising “middle Australia” to improve the life of the less advantaged. This is the life of the “naked retiree” – skinned to the bones! Older Australians who depended on and planned for retirement under the “old” rules – living in the “lucky country”.

You can read more on the “naked retiree” and other reflective topics in Kathryn’s blog, Scattered Straws. https://scatteredstraws.com/

Notes

[1] Story by Jessica Howard, The Mercury, Friday, 28 October 2016, p. 17

[2] Story by Monique Hore, Brisbane Courier-Mail, 30 December 2016, p. 18

[3] http://thenewdaily.com.au/money/retirement/2016/09/14/age-pension-assets-test/ – story by Jackson Stiles

Next week: She Who Also Sometimes Writes will have a pre-election piece for your greater edification. Meanwhile, I’m going for another nap.