Issue: February/March 2006

Healthy alternatives

If yohave the discipline for it, and your employer allows it, you’d probably do better by regularly saving for your own retirement through unit trusts or Satrix than through occupational retirement funds. The after-costs return of retirement funds makes them less competitive and virtually incapable of keeping track of the markets, let alone outperforming them, no matter how well their investment managers perform in gross terms. But returns aren’t necessarily the be-all and end-all, are they?

Simple arithmetic indicates there should be no formal retirement funds. This is not to suggest for a moment that people shouldn’t save for retirement. Far from it. Rather, it is to suggest that the compliance and administration costs of conventional pension and provident schemes render them less efficient savings vehicles, ultimately producing poorer net returns than actively managed unit trusts or passively managed market trackers.

It stands to reason. Investment performance is a function of market movements. Outperformance or underperformance of individual funds happens at the margins. If the costs for one category of funds are multiples of another category, then it follows that investors do that much better from the latter.

These bald statements having been made, there are complexities of relative advantages and disadvantages. Tax treatment is one; the provision of death and disability benefits is another. Of paramount concern overall, however, is the responsibility of people to look after themselves. The widespread switch to defined-contribution retirement funds puts the investment risk onto the individual anyway.

With standard pension funds, not only are there regulated requirements for asset allocation and huge costs inclusive of investment advisory and consultancy fees (TT Nov-Dec 2005). There’s also individual member choice that adds to the burden of trustees in the formulation of mandates.


With unit trusts, offering a multiplicity of managers and a range from the general to the specialist, the selection choices are wider than the number of JSE-listed shares. And with the exchange-traded funds of Satrix and Itrix, where costs are lowest, there’s instant liquidity (for investors to move in and out) as there is with unit trusts; but there’s no prospect of outperforming (or underperforming) the defined basket of shares. The existing cost structures of retirement annuities, on the other hand, tend to lock in members for the duration of the policy term.

In its 2005 discussion document, National Treasury felt there needn’t be legislation compelling employees to join a retirement fund or to pay particular contribution rates. If there’s to be no compulsion as a condition of employment, it recommends that employers be required to offer each new employee both education on the desirably of retirement savings options and payroll facilities for the employee to join either a retirement fund "which doesn’t depend on the employer/employee relationship" or the proposed National Savings Fund.

So the choices are virtually infinite. In whichever way,  they are choices ultimately for the individual. The first  choice is whether to save at all, to which the answer is  obviously yes. The second is the most appropriate vehicle.

For rough illustrative comparisons, take R4 000 a month (say half contributed by an employer and half by the employee) that escalates at 10 percent a year:

  • Invested in an average-performing domestic equity general fund over the 10 years to November 2005, it would be worth almost R1,5 million net, ie excluding the initial unit-trust fee at 5,7 percent and the annual fee at 1,14 percent (see box);

  • Invested from June 1995 in the Satrix 40, an index of the largest 40 stocks listed on the JSE, by December 2005 it was worth slightly over R1,8 million. Invested from February 2001, it would be R505 700. These are also net figures, exclusive of distributions as well as the initial Satrix fee of 1,75 percent and annual fee of 0,75 percent.

Because comparisons are odious, one gets into all sorts of arguments about real returns (after inflation) and net returns (after expenses). But if actuary Rob Rusconi is near correct in his estimate that the median expenses of self-administered funds range from eight to 11 percent of member contributions before retirement-fund tax, these funds are severely handicapped to compete with alternative savings vehicles on net returns.

Looking at gross yields since 1984, and calculating from them different replacement ratios (percentages of final salary that will be paid to a fund member on retirement), National Treasury’s paper makes it pretty evident that savings squanderers will be uncomfortable in their old age. Assuming a fund’s real return of three percent, not too many South Africans will show 12 percent contributions from their salaries over 30 years to get 42 percent of their final salaries on retirement.

"To do a proper comparison of unit trusts and retirement funds, one would have to make generic assumptions on expense charges and relative returns," cautions John Kotze, head of Old Mutual Actuaries & Consultants. "These would tend to make the comparisons inappropriate for individuals in different circumstances."

A group benefit scheme, Kotze points out, contributes to the wealth and welfare of an employee by providing a compulsory planned system of retirement. A retirement fund is essentially an investment vehicle that provides its members with retirement benefits.


  • Relieves them of the moral obligation to provide benefits on retirement, withdrawal, disablement or death to staff or dependents;

  • Receives tax concessions on contributions;

  • Enhances the attraction of remuneration packages.


  • Forces them to save;

  • Enjoys employer’s contribution;

  • Customised risk benefits designed for different schemes;

  • Death benefits paid to dependants and disability benefits to employee, funded by employer;

  • Group cover cheaper than individual cover, and often without evidence of good health to certain limits;

  • Professional management and advice;

  • Investment policy statement should indicate benchmarks for investment returns;

  • Flexibility of market-linked and balanced investment choice and/or member-level investment choice;

  • Legal protection of fund benefits in the event of personal insolvency.


  • Benefits, rules and tax difficult to understand;

  • Perception that fund is for senior managers at expense of other members;

  • Perception that costs/fees too high and eating into assets;

  • Member might have little control over investments;

  • Often compulsory to join the pension fund of the employer.


  • For the employer, contributions to pension and provident funds are deductible at between 10 and 20 percent of the employee’s remuneration;

  • For the employee, contributions to a maximum of R1 750 or 7,5 percent of retirement funding income are deductible for pension funds and any excess may be used to increase the tax-free portion of the lump sum;

  • Contributions to provident funds are not deductible, and the full entitlement can therefore be taken in cash on retirement.

Also, points out Lekana Employee Benefits chief executive Dave Steere, retirement-fund benefits are taxed when they’re received. Generally, there is advantage in getting upfront relief on the contribution through tax deferment and greater flexibility to arrange tax affairs on retirement. And, although it’s getting smaller, a portion of the lump sum is received tax-free.



  • Simple to understand;

  • Easy to buy and sell;

  • Valued daily and costs transparent;

  • Wide choices of investment manager, portfolio and risk profile;

  • Rand-cost averaging (monthly purchases keeping units at a reasonable average price, irrespective of market cycles) and the power of compounding (interest on interest through dividends reinvestment) for longer-term investors;

  • Ability to cash in whenever one wishes.


  • No external discipline to stay the course if the investment objective is retirement funding. Temptation to ‘time the market’;

  • Aggressive or high-risk unit trusts must be seen as seven to 10-year investments so that compounding reduces risks and effects of market volatility;

  • Investor carries all the risks. Only he can manage them through diversification and persistence.


  • Dividends from equity investments are tax-free;

  • Interest income is fully taxable;

  • On redemption of unit trusts, capital gains are taxable in the hands of the investor. When he sells the investment, 25 percent of the capital gain must be added to the taxpayer’s income;

  • There’s no tax deduction for moneys invested.

Whichever route one goes on planning for retirement, Kotze stresses what must be uppermost in mind. First is to have a benefits objective, being the percentage of final salary at retirement. Second is to invest regularly in the vehicle best suited to personal needs and circumstances, understanding the real investment returns as well as the minimum contributions required.

May the bull market of 2005 gain eternal momentum to rescue us all. But don’t bank on it.


Investment in an averagely performing

Monthly Contrbution: 4,000 Initial Fees: 5.70%
Annual Increase: 10.0% Annual Fees: 1.14%
     Level Monthly Return    
Years Gross Net (excl annual fees)  Value incl. 10%pa contribution increase Value excl. 10%pa contribution increase

Investment in the Old Mutual Investors

  Level Monthly Return Old Mutual Investors Fund
Years Gross Net (excl annual fees)  Value incl. 10%pa contribution increase Value excl. 10%pa contribution increase
5yrs 25.69%  24.55% 486,840 415,564
10yrs 17.38% 16.24% 1,504,417 1,060,436
20yrs 17.03% 15.89% 10,404,843 5,608,523

Source: Association of Collective Investments