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Hostplus has quietly granted itself 'absolute discretion' over whether broke hospitality and tourism workers can access their super early

Joanna Mather, AFR

Hostplus has quietly changed its terms and conditions so it can freeze redemptions and prevent cash switching, as the $50 billion fund faces questions about its capacity to meet what could be an avalanche of requests for up to $20,000 by out-of-work members.

A new clause has been inserted into Hostplus' product disclosure statement that allows the fund to "suspend or restrict applications, switches, redemption and withdrawal requests".

The statement previously assured members that any request to switch investment options received before 4pm on a business day would be processed. Now, the trustee retains "absolute discretion" to disallow the movement of money and warns requests might be processed with "significant delay".

Chris Brycki, the founder of online investment adviser Stockspot, believes the abrupt change occured on Friday night and is concerning for Hostplus members.

"Why would a fund that was confident about it's valuations and liquidity position suddenly add a new term to its product disclosure statement allowing it to 'suspend or restrict redemptions and withdrawals at its absolute discretion'," he said.

"This move is more typical of a fund preparing to put up the gates. It will not give members confidence in the fund's ability to facilitate redemptions or switches going forward."

Struggle to meet claims

Hostplus draws many of its members from workers in industries that have been hard hit by the downturn, including hospitality and tourism.

The fund last week divulged details of its asset holdings amid claims it might struggle to meet early access claims, disclosing that it has $6 billion in cash and 60 per cent in liquid assets such as shares and bonds.

“We have ample liquidity available to support members undergoing financial hardship," Hostplus chief executive David Elia said in a statement issued on March 30.

For the past several days, the public relations firm engaged by Hostplus has said the fund is not making any comments.

The government has expanded early access to super on compassionate grounds for people made redundant by the coronavirus crisis, as well as sole traders who have experienced a drop in turnover of 20 per cent or more.

Treasury's initial estimate was that members would withdraw up to $27 billion from their retirement savings using the measure.

Estimates within the industry put the figure possibly as high as $50 billion or more. But those projections were devised before the government announced wage subsidies, which may ease demand for early release of super.

Mr Brycki said he had been trying to blow the whistle on the "dangers of unlisted assets in super funds" for years.

"If the unlisted investments have not been properly valued members who transfer into cash or redeem their units at the current price potentially do so at the wrong value," he said.

"The remaining members pay for this as well as suffering their own losses when the unlisted assets are finally revalued down or sold."

Mr Brycki called for laws requiring more frequent "market based" valuations of unlisted assets and more transparency around liquidity.

The former UBS portfolio manager founded Stockspot in 2013 and is an advocate of index investing as a cheaper way to manage super investments.

"The level of secrecy and non-disclosure by public funds has always been unacceptable but it has taken the current crisis to expose it," Mr Brycki said.

He said Stockspot investors were able to get real time details on the value of each exchange-traded fund held on their behalf, as well as the underlying assets.

This story originally appeared in the Australian Financial Review. Read the original story here.