The Coalition has never approved of compulsory super, which began as part of the union movement’s Accord with the Labor government. By the time Abbott got around to it, the contribution rate had crept up to its present 9.5 per cent, but he managed to persuade the Senate to delay the next (0.5 percentage point) increase until July next year, with the 12 per cent to be reached in July 2025.
Everything about this scheme’s history says Prime Minister Scott Morrison wouldn’t want the contribution rate to go any higher. It’s likely he’s hoping the looming inquiry into super will recommend this, and so help him persuade the Senate to change the law accordingly.
The superannuation industry has been campaigning for years to convince you and me that 9 per cent or so isn’t sufficient to pay for a comfortable retirement, and to get the contribution rate greatly increased. In this, the non-profit “industry” super funds (with much union involvement) are at one with the largely bank-owned, for-profit part of the super industry.
Apart from some important reports by the Productivity Commission, the most authoritative independent analysis of super comes from Brendan Coates of the Grattan Institute. Grattan has argued that raising the compulsory contribution rate would be contrary to employees’ interests, forcing them to live on less during their working lives so their incomes in retirement could be higher than they were used to and more than they needed.
To strengthen the case for continuing to raise the contribution rate, the industry funds have commissioned a couple of studies purporting to show that the conventional wisdom is wrong and contributions do indeed come at the employers’ expense.
So this week Grattan issued a paper providing empirical evidence supporting the economists’ conventional wisdom that, in the end, workers have to pay for their own super.
If the notion that employees pay for employers’ contributions strikes you as strange and hard to believe, it shouldn’t. Consider the goods and services tax. Have you ever sent the taxman a cheque for the GST you pay? No, never. The cheques are written by the businesses you buy from. So, does that mean they pay GST but you don’t? Of course not. Why not? Because the businesses pass the tax on to you in the retail prices they charge.
Economists have long understood that the “legal incidence” of a tax (who’s required to write the cheque) and the “economic incidence” or ultimate burden (who ends up paying the tax) are usually different.
It’s convenient for the government to collect taxes from a smaller number of businesses rather than from a huge number of consumers or employees. Economists know that businesses may pass the burden of the taxes they pay “forward” to their customers or “backward” to their employees. Only if neither of those is possible is the ultimate burden of the tax passed from the business to its owners.
Naturally, the business would like to pass the burden anywhere but to its owners. But whether it’s passed forward or backward (or some combination of the three) will be determined by the market circumstances the business finds itself in.
That is, the question can’t be answered from economic theory, but must be answered with empirical evidence (experience in the real world). Theory (using the simple demand and supply diagram familiar to all economics students – see page 12 of the Grattan report) can, however, clarify the exact question.
Theory suggests that the ultimate destination of the burden depends on how workers and employers respond when super is increased. There are two “effects”. First, when workers value an extra dollar of super, even if they value it less than an extra dollar of wages, then some (but not all) of the cost of super will come out of their wages.
Second, if workers’ willingness to work doesn’t vary much when wages change – that is, if labour supply is relatively “inelastic” – then they’d be expected to bear a larger share of the cost. Similarly, if employers’ willingness to hire people doesn’t vary much when wages change – labour demand is inelastic – then more of the cost will fall on the bosses.
Most overseas studies have confirmed the conventional wisdom. But what about us?
Coates and his team examined the details of 80,000 federal workplace agreements made between 1991 and 2018. They found that, on average, about 80 per cent of the cost of increases in compulsory super was passed back to workers through lower wage rises within the life of an enterprise agreement, usually two to three years. (This leaves open the question of how much of the remaining 20 per cent was passed forward to customers in higher prices.)
Only about a third of workers are covered by enterprise agreements. For the many wages linked to the Fair Work Commission’s annual adjustments to award wages, it has said explicitly that when super goes up, award wages grow more slowly. As for workers covered by individual agreements, it’s a safe bet which way the employers will jump.
Whatever it suits the superannuation industry to claim, increased super contributions are no free lunch.
Ross Gittins is The Sydney Morning Herald’s economics editor.
Ross Gittins is the Economics Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.