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Increases in interest rates – should SMSFs be concerned?

By Graeme Colley, SuperConcepts
06 June 2022 — 4 minute read

The predicted ongoing increases in interest rates have sent shivers down the spines of many SMSF trustees, but should they be concerned.  The answer depends on the factors unique to each SMSF including the fund’s investment strategy and its investment mix.

The investment strategy of all superannuation funds, including SMSFs are required to consider:

  • the risks and likely returns from investments, 
  • cash flows, 
  • investment diversification, 
  • liquidity, and 
  • the ability of the fund to discharge existing and prospective liabilities.  

All these requirements are closely linked and can turn out to be a bit of a balancing act when markets are volatile.  It is up to the trustees to implement and maintain a portfolio of investments consistent with that strategy as it changes over time. 

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As a general rule, an investment portfolio of an SMSF may consist of:

  • listed and unlisted shares and units in unit trusts, 
  • commercial and residential property,
  • currency,
  • term deposits, and 
  • specialised and boutique investments.  

If we apply the requirements of the fund’s investment strategy to an increase in interest rates then we may see increases in the value of some investments and decreases in the value of others.  Under these conditions, some investments may provide higher income and capital gains while others may provide less.  This volatility may upset the balance between those investments which have been acquired to produce capital growth while others are for purposes of income.  The capital growth and revenue components of the fund’s income may vary.  This may alter the fund’s cash flow and liquidity and may impact on the fund being able to pay its expenses and other liabilities. 

Let’s look at the possible changes to the major asset class – cash, fixed interest, equities and property and how they react to interest rate changes as a general rule.

Cash

An increase in the interest rates on cash are usually influenced by greater demand for money in the economy.  This may result in the fund placing any cash it receives from dividends, interest or rent into interest bearing cash deposits which are highly liquid.  Where interest rates are rising at a rapid rate the fund can access the benefit of the increase.  However, if the trustees consider interest rate increases are slowing or showing signs of dropping it may be better for the fund to invest in medium to longer term investments such as bonds or fixed term investments.

Fixed term investments

As the name suggests fixed term investments include term deposits with a bank or financial institution, government or company bonds or debentures.  These investments may be held by the super fund for the term of the bond or deposit, may be cashed in early at a discount or traded on the open market.

The impact of an increase or decrease in interest rates may result in the market value of the investment rising or falling.  For example, as interest rates rise, the market value of a bond may fall because investors are able to use the cash they have to acquire a bond with a higher interest rate that provides a greater yield.

Where company bonds are held there may be other factors impacting on their market value.  This could be due, in part, to the performance of the issuing company and its capacity to repay the bond when it matures.  It is worthwhile to review the performance of the company in conjunction with the potential changes in interest rates when judging whether the investment is worthwhile for the time the fund is expected to hold the investment.

Equities

In a volatile interest rate environment there are many factors to consider when investing in listed equities.  The factors can include the industry sector they are involved in, whether they are a new company or have been around for a while, share price volatility and interest rate history.

Interest rate volatility may impact on the share price in a number of ways.  For example, in an environment where interest rates are increasing the value of shares in companies that have high levels of gearing may fall as profits may be impacted by the increases in loan repayments.  Companies which sell goods and services which relate to consumer discretionary items may see a fall in share value as consumers tighten their purse strings to pay for essential items such as home loans, fuel and food.  However, an increase in interest rates may impact on the share price of companies that sell lower price goods which may act as a replacement for consumer discretionary items.  

Property

Interest rate volatility may have an impact on the price of property as borrowers may be restricted in the amount they can borrow.  Also, the price of new homes may be impacted by the increase in the price of building materials which may be manufactured by companies with high levels of borrowing.

What makes a good investment for an SMSF depends on each fund’s objectives.  For example, a fund  with relatively young members may be seeking investments with high capital growth and a lower amount of income being paid as interest, rent or dividends.  In contrast, an SMSF consisting of retired or older members may be considering investments with higher income yields and lower capital growth to help with cash flow as benefits are drawn down.

A review and adjustment of the fund’s investment strategy may be required where markets move over time or a member leaves the fund.  However,  this is a long-term objective and would be expected to occur at less regular intervals than rebalancing the fund’s portfolio.  Any reallocation should aim to align the fund’s investments within its investment strategy and assets allocation ranges.  

Rebalancing a portfolio which includes a sizable or ‘lumpy’ investment that has increased significantly may prove difficult to sell.  Examples include real estate, shares in private companies or unit trusts and specialised investments such as artwork and collectables.

It may be left to the fund’s auditor to determine if the fund’s investment strategy and allocation are  out of alignment.  Failing to meet the investment strategy requirements and put that strategy into action is a compliance issue for the fund and can be reported to the ATO by the fund’s auditor in an Audit Contravention Report (ACR).

By Graeme Colley, executive manager, SMSF technical & private wealth, SuperConcepts 

Increases in interest rates – should SMSFs be concerned?
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