Super revolution needs a big push

No matter how good a new idea may be, if it involves disrupting the status quo, it will face inertia.

It needs to be accompanied by a major push and a lack of significant resistance from those affected by it. It also needs a sponsor with plenty of influence and patience to keep pushing.

Australia's richest person, Anthony Pratt, is the perfect pick to champion the need to agitate for a big change to the way Australian superannuation funds invest.

He has plenty of influence, heavy-hitting supporters in his camp, and an idea that should be beneficial for Australian companies and the national interest.

His plan to encourage Australia's super funds to act as lenders to Australian business at least seems radical.

Super funds typically invest in a particular suite of asset classes including shares and government bonds, but there is scant evidence that this has extended to Australian corporate debt.

To do so would certainly provide a new asset class for super funds and a new source of funding for Australian companies.

The two main pillars of the Australian financial system are its bank lenders and our superannuation funds - the latter have about $2.4 trillion in their coffers to invest on our behalf to fund our retirement.

To have them compete as lenders to business is a prospect that has not been given much attention until now.

Whether it catches on will in large part depend on whether medium and or even large businesses need a new source of funding or a longer-term source of funding.

Over the past couple of years, Australian companies have been a bit sluggish in looking for large-scale funding, preferring to enhance their profits and appeal to shareholders by cutting costs and handing over bigger dividends.

Large companies have not been complaining about getting access to bank finance, and many of them are accessing the large, sophisticated debt private placement markets in the US for big licks of capital.

To the extent that there is an opportunity in the borrowing market, it would be for companies that are looking for long-term debt of maybe seven or even 20 years. That is a market in which Australian banks typically don't play.

If a big Australian company wants long-term funding, they head to US or European debt markets.

Both News Corp and Westfield tapped into the US super funds market - the former issued a 100-year bond.

"Bringing longer-term bond financing into Australia's corporate mainstream is an idea whose time has come," Pratt says.

So what do the Australian banks have to say about the prospect of this potential disruption to their market with the entry of super funds as lending competitors.

Judging from the three bank executives who took part in Pratt's roundtable event this week, their response has been pretty positive.

They don't want to lose a customer that seeks other ways to arrange debt. Rather, they are happy to help a corporate customer arrange debt from another source and continue providing them with other corporate services like financial markets and transactional banking.

Indeed, in many instances the return banks receive on traditional lending to companies is not particularly attractive.

And super funds will need the help of the banks - who have the expertise to assess credit risk - a vital tool that super funds don't have.

One senior banker I spoke with on Friday said there was plenty of interest from mid-sized companies to tap into longer-term loans that could be provided by super funds.

He said it would take time but history had shown that new markets would develop when there was a need.

From the perspective of Australia's super funds, the opportunity to invest in long-dated corporate debt certainly has some appeal.

While they will need to be sensitive to the yield or the return on these investments, and will not have the same growth or higher-yield characteristics of shares, they will better suit older Australians that are looking for reliable returns as they move beyond the accumulation phase post their retirement.

The idea certainly dovetails well in the profile of the ageing population that is living longer.

For companies, the introduction of another source of funding that could be cheaper than bank loans and much cheaper than issuing new equity, should be a winner, particularly if there are less onerous lending terms.

Long-term funding from super funds can better match the tenor of loans with the life of the assets they are funding.

But the last word should surely come from the father of Australia's super system, Paul Keating, who is completely on board with Pratt's cause.

He says the super funds will increasingly need assets with long tenure and reliable interest payments as advances in medical technology extend the lives of Australians well beyond 100 years of age.

"What we need is another chock in our financial system for mid-sized corporates where they can get seven or 10-year money that is more covenant light with fixed-rate interest," he says.

"This, of course, fits in with the requirements and obligations of the super funds."

This story Super revolution needs a big push first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.