Need to know
- One ethical fund recently moved into the top quartile of funds for long-term performance
- Fees for ethical funds and options may be substantially higher than their mainstream counterparts
- Claims that ethical super or responsible investments outperform their peers should be examined closely
In a recent poll of CHOICE readers, seven in 10 respondents said that maximising returns was the priority for their retirement savings, ahead of investing ethically.
Although you don’t necessarily have to choose between one or the other, it's important to get a full picture of how ethical funds and options are performing so you can make an informed choice about who manages your super.
The Responsible Investment Association Australasia (RIAA), the accreditor of ethical investments, has certified only four funds as ethical on a whole-of-fund basis. Of these, Australian Ethical had the best performance over the past five years. The certified funds can be found through RIAA's Responsible Returns tool.
In the fund-wide figures reported to the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority (APRA), only Australian Ethical (ranked six of the 146 funds listed) was in the top quarter of funds for five-year returns. Local Government Super was ranked 48 with Christian Super at 78 and Future Super at 122. Future Super didn't respond to an enquiry from Super Consumers Australia about its performance.
These figures need to be approached with some caution. They are fund-wide, so the performance of the specific option your super is invested in may be quite different from that of the fund as a whole.
A high-performing option can lift the fund-wide figure, but you need to have your super invested in that option to benefit from its performance.
A high-performing option can lift the fund-wide figure, but you need to have your super invested in that option to benefit from its performance
Another complication when comparing certified ethical funds is that not all investment options are created equal. Some are what are known as 'single strategy', meaning they have one investment strategy no matter your age. Australian Ethical and Christian Super take this path for their default 'MySuper' investment.
Others take a 'lifecycle' approach, meaning the investment strategy changes as you age. Lifecycle investments tend to become more conservative (or decrease in risk), the trade-off being potentially lower returns as you get closer to retirement. Local Government Super has invested its 'MySuper' option this way.
Future Super does not have a MySuper product – members have to choose to join the fund.
The following table shows the five-year net returns of the three certified ethical funds with MySuper products. Australian Ethical has moved into the top quarter of funds after recent improvements in performance. Christian Super remains below the median.
|Certified ethical super fund with MySuper product||5-year net return rank (of 76)|
|Local Government Super||44th|
Aside from how your super fund performs, fees are a very important factor in the size of your retirement savings.
Funds charge fees for managing your super that may seem minor, but over time they can have a substantial impact on your retirement savings. The Productivity Commission found that even a seemingly insignificant 0.5% difference in fees can cost a typical person in full-time work $100,000 by retirement age.
The graphic below shows how the certified ethical funds stack up on fees for their MySuper products against the median fee.
Fees for managing your super may seem minor, but over time can have a substantial impact on your retirement savings
Australian Ethical chief investment officer, David Macri, tells Super Consumers Australia that fees are important, but says the fund is focused "on delivering value to our members through superior risk-adjusted performance after fees".
Macri also notes the fund had lowered its fees over time and planned to continue cutting fees as more members join.
What does the APRA heat map reveal?
APRA recently released a 'heat map' which rates funds from white to dark red on a number of criteria, including fees.
Products that are performing above a benchmark set by APRA are coloured white.
Products that fall below the benchmark are coloured on a continuum from pale yellow to dark red.
|Fund||Total fees disclosed on $10,000 balance||Total fees disclosed on $50,000 balance|
|Local Government Super||Yellow||Orange|
Another way to invest in line with your values is to stay with a mainstream fund but move your super, or some of it, into a sustainable investment option offered by the fund.
As we saw in part three of this series, some funds offer these options but don't disclose what they invest in, so there can be questions over the 'socially responsible' and 'sustainable' claims they make.
When a mainstream fund offers a socially responsible product alongside its balanced product, the performance is generally better for the balanced product
Some of the larger funds argue they can offer members more value than certified ethical funds. A spokesperson for Australian Super tells us that "AustralianSuper's size and scale enables the fund to actively steward our capital and use our influence to achieve better environmental, social and governance (ESG) outcomes and create long-term value for members."
Some of these options have performed well. However, the general trend is that when a mainstream fund offers a socially responsible product alongside its balanced product, the performance is better for the balanced product.
This table shows the performance of default options compared with socially responsible options over a five-year period. Note: it isn't possible to do a strict 'apples for apples' comparison as the socially responsible options may have different risk levels.
|Super fund||Default option
5-year crediting rate
(to 30 June 2020)
|Socially responsible option
5-year crediting rate
(to 30 June 2020)
|Aware Super (formerly First State Super) [growth stage]||6.57%||5.89% (Australian Equities socially responsible investment)|
|5.4% (Diversified socially responsible investment)|
|Sunsuper (Balanced Pool)||6.45%||5.07%|
Note: these returns are after deduction of fees and taxes, except for Aware Super, which is before deduction of administrative fees. For the lifecycle funds, the main stage was used.
Superannuation researchers. Super Ratings, previously concluded that sustainable options (as a whole) don't perform as well as balanced options, although some individual sustainable options did do well.
For example, Hesta's Eco Pool easily outperforms the fund's core balanced option (Core Pool), but this option is heavily weighted towards shares and is an exception to the rule. But as we'll see in the next section, fees are also higher for this option than for Hesta's default option.
Hesta did not respond to our question about why the Eco Pool option costs more.
In some funds, fees are much higher for the options badged as socially responsible. One explanation may be the extra resources a super fund spends on researching and analysing the investments to determine if they pass the various ethical tests.
|Super fund||Default fees on $50k
(growth stage for lifecycle)
|Socially responsible fees on $50k
(as of August 2020)
|Aware (formerly First State Super) [growth stage]||$527||$252 (Australian equities socially responsible investment)|
|$382 (Diversified socially responsible investment)|
|Hesta (Eco Pool)||$520||$600|
|Sunsuper (Balanced Pool)||$446–453||$703|
|Unisuper||$351||$336 (Global Environment Opportunities)|
|$282 (Sustained Balanced)|
|$306 (Sustainable High Growth)|
Note: rounded to nearest dollar
In theory at least, a super fund could offer lower fees on a socially responsible option by outsourcing its socially responsible option to a passively managed ETF.
In some funds, the socially responsible options actually charge lower fees. A spokesperson for UniSuper told us that the fund's three socially responsible options use listed investments and mostly internal fund managers so that it can offer a low-fee product.
In contrast, Australian Super says the higher fee for its socially aware option "is a result of two drivers: the investment objectives of the option, and the investment managers selected".
Fees can have a substantial impact on your retirement savings.
You may have seen headlines that responsible investment funds have outperformed mainstream funds across a range of different time frames and asset classes. These stories are picking up on work done by the RIAA.
But this research compares share portfolios, not super funds.
Comparing a share portfolio with a super fund isn't an 'apples with apples' comparison. Super funds are designed to maximise your retirement savings, so invest in a range of assets, including individual shares, fixed-interest options, unlisted property, hedge funds, infrastructure and cash.
A share portfolio, on the other hand, is invested only in shares. And, unlike a super fund, it generally isn't designed to meet the holistic retirement goals of investors, being more of a high-risk/high-return strategy.
A share portfolio is invested only in shares and, unlike a super fund, generally isn't designed to meet the holistic retirement goals of investors
The RIAA has also claimed that super funds that invest responsibly outperform their peers.
But it's important to point out here that certified 'ethical funds' and 'responsible investment funds' are not the same thing.
The 'responsible investment' funds include a number of large mainstream funds, including Australian Super, Care, First State (now Aware Super), Hesta, Cbus and Unisuper, as well as the certified ethical funds.
The group of 'responsible investment' funds is actually much larger than the group of 'non-responsible investment' funds.
Cbus has a responsible investment policy in place that informs how all options invest
The example of Cbus illustrates how a fund doesn't necessarily have to offer a certified ethical option, or even an option badged as socially responsible or sustainable, to be considered a responsible investor. The fund has a responsible investment policy in place that informs how all options invest.
This RIAA research also includes Australia's Future Fund as one of the responsible funds. But this is a sovereign wealth fund that specifically describes itself as "not a superannuation fund" and isn't open for investment from members of the public.
So, what can we make of these findings? First, they highlight the overlapping and often confusing terminology used in this area. Second, they show that some mainstream funds are embracing environmental, social and governance criteria, but aren't certified as ethical funds.
More in our ethical super series
This is the fifth part in a series on ethical super from Super Consumers Australia. Catch up on any parts you missed below:
- Part one: What is ethical superannuation?
- Part two: Four strategies for ethical super investment
- Part three: Why ethical super funds can hide where they put their money
- Part four: Where is your money invested?
This content was produced by Super Consumers Australia which is an independent, nonprofit consumer organisation partnering with CHOICE to advance and protect the interests of people in the Australian superannuation system.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.