by Olivia Long

Those of us in the SMSF sector – and thankfully it’s the vast majority – who hoped that the property spruikers would have been driven out of the industry by now have been sorely disappointed.

When the spruikers first realised that the combination of leverage and SMSFs were an ideal vehicle for pushing residential sales in a bullish property market, irrespective of the merits of the asset or how it fitted into a trustee’s portfolio, the anticipation was that the regulators would step in and end this questionable behaviour.

I am the first to admit the regulators have issued warning after warning about the practice, and the media has given it wide coverage, but it has had little or no effect; there still seems to be more spruikers than you find at a country fair.

I have had my own first-hand experience dealing with spruikers several years ago when I was asked to assist a Gold Coast property group with a series of workshops where my role was to explain the compliance requirements in running an SMSF. 

That was my specific brief – trustee education. But it soon became evident that was not what the property group had in mind. They were there to sell property, by fair means or foul, to the trustees, with my role to give the sordid little sales pitch a semblance of respectability as an SMSF specialist. The moment I saw there were no qualified financial planners there to give holistic advice on any purchase I realised our values were not aligned and took my leave. But not before giving the organisers a piece of my mind!

It is practices such as this that are bringing into question the legitimacy of SMSFs to use leverage – limited recourse borrowing arrangements (LRBAs) to be technical – as part of their investment strategy. There is no better evidence of this than the fact the Financial System Inquiry has firmly put it on the agenda in its draft report by posing the following policy option – “restore the general prohibition on direct leverage of superannuation funds on a prospective basis” – for further discussion. In the view of many in the industry, a ban on leverage is a lay-down misère.  

In my opinion, leverage does have a role to play in an SMSF, and considering less than one per cent of assets in their portfolios are LRBAs it’s hard to argue that trustees have been borrowing with their ears pinned back, although their use is undoubtedly increasing.

What needs to happen is for lenders to get a statement of advice about using a LRBA, or, at the very least, some evidence that they have sought appropriate financial advice before pursuing this strategy. 

There are any number of items trustees need to consider, such as anticipated time to retirement, fund liquidity and the ability for the fund to pay a pension to its members, and life insurance – so that the fund can pay out death benefit payments without the need to sell the property.

LRBAs are complicated investments and need to be treated with caution. As a rule of thumb, and recognising there can and will be exceptions, it’s not a strategy many endorse for those in the pension phase when the name of the game for most trustees is capital preservation.

Like everyone else in the industry I will be waiting with bated breath to see what the FSI recommends. Even if it does suggest an outright ban, the final decision will rest with the Federal Government that promised no adverse changes to superannuation in this parliamentary term. Whatever the outcome, what remains deeply frustrating for all professional advisors is how a rogue minority continues to wag the industry’s tail on this issue.