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Ignore super now and pay the price later

By Tanveer Ahmed - posted Wednesday, 12 May 2010


I struggle to care about my superannuation. It is boring, unseen and I can't touch it for three decades. But caring about super is becoming a critical aspect of being an active citizen. Our culture has seen a dramatic shift in recent decades to an economy and society dominated by financial transactions. Talk about interest rates, property prices and markets fill the news cycle. The presenters narrating the ups and downs of the All Ordinaries are a staple of daily life.

At work, many of us experience the pressure to be efficient and the risk of unemployment, both for the sake of stockmarket prices. In our private lives, we are harassed by consumerist temptations and payment obligations, while attempting to preserve a small haven of humanity to resist the burden of money management.

After each interest rate rise, the Reserve Bank governor is like a ringmaster unleashing a piece of theatre between the government, as represented by Treasurer Wayne Swan, and the leaders of our major banks. The nation state metaphorically eyeballs the chief bankers, threatening further admonishment if they dare raise their rates excessively.

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This piece of financial theatre is a local production of a bigger clash between Western governments and global finance, set ablaze by the recent fraud accusation against banking titan Goldman Sachs.

Anger over Goldman's dealings spread from the US to Britain, where Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called for a global levy on the banking industry and a quashing of their unique remuneration practices.

Just as money and debt have come to rule our lives like never before, these intermediaries, as represented by companies such as Goldman Sachs or local incarnation Macquarie Bank, have become the high priests of our financial times. They were at the centre of the financial crisis and continue to extract the lion's share of national income. But not unlike Catholic priests, their actions are not always aligned with their client's interests.

Australian workers and consumers paid $1.5 billion in commissions to financial advisers last year, according to research commissioned by Rainmaker, prompting the head of the Industry Super Network, David Whitely, to suggest there was a profound market failure in the sector. The group supports the government's move to ban commissions for advisers.

The proposed increase in super contributions resulting from the Henry review may only expand the industry's inefficiencies.

The Productivity Commission's recent report on executive pay identified the need for more pressure upon boardrooms from managers of superannuation funds to rein in stratospheric pay. The financial markets and associated shareholders are largely pooled funds of our superannuation.

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The British regulator agreed, stating in a report last year that poor bargaining by pension funds contributed to outsized executive salaries, unconstrained by the diffuse ownership of modern corporations. But an element of anger towards financiers is like denigrating the vacuous achievements of some celebrities. On the one hand we ridicule their unworthy fame, but on the other consume every related morsel of news and gossip.

Likewise, many of us worship at the altar of money, with its associations of security and status and view getting rich as a form of secular salvation. Celebrities and investment banks crystallise the twin peaks of modern aspiration - fame and money.

The offices of investment companies, especially their trading sections, have a primal quality. There is no pretence of any achievement beyond the making of money. It is sometimes seen as a more evolved job where money begets money, free from the cares of ordinary workers and their modest incomes.

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First published in The Age on May 6, 2010.



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About the Author

Dr Tanveer Ahmed is a psychiatrist, author and local councillor. His first book is a migration memoir called The Exotic Rissole. He is a former SBS journalist, Fairfax columnist and writes for a wide range of local and international publications.
He was elected to Canada Bay Council in 2012. He practises in western Sydney and rural NSW.

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