What investors can learn from Australia's sovereign wealth fund

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MAY 16:  Peter Costello, Chairman of the Australian Future Fund is seen speaking at the Australian Shareholders' Association (ASA) National Conference at the Grand Hyatt Melbourne on May 16, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Vince Caligiuri/Fairfax Media) *** Local Caption *** Peter Costello
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MAY 16: Peter Costello, Chairman of the Australian Future Fund is seen speaking at the Australian Shareholders' Association (ASA) National Conference at the Grand Hyatt Melbourne on May 16, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Vince Caligiuri/Fairfax Media) *** Local Caption *** Peter Costello

Australia's sovereign wealth fund, the Future Fund, has an enviable investment performance.

The fund, seeded from the sale of Telstra and government surpluses more than a decade ago, has produced an average annual compound return over that time of 7.9 per cent.

By contrast, the balanced investment options - the options that most workers have their super with - returned less than 6 per cent.

Though it might not seem that much, a difference of almost 2 percentage points is a big deal.

One percentage point less in fees now could mean up to 20 per cent more in the super balance over 30 years, all other things being equal.

That's why I was interested to hear Peter Costello, the chairman of the Future Fund, say the fund could possibly start managing money on behalf of super funds.

To be clear, Costello was talking about the possibility of managing a portion of a super fund's money, not becoming a super fund itself.

The Future Fund was established by the government to manage the money that will be used to pay for the unfunded pension liabilities of Commonwealth public servants. It will not have to pay out any money for at least another 10 years.

Super funds have contributions into their funds, as well as withdrawals as members goes into retirement. Not having to manage flows into and out of the Future Fund allows it to take more risks and earn higher returns than super funds.

But investors, and particularly those running their own super funds who still have many years before retirement, can get a few tips on asset allocation from the Future Fund.

The first thing to notice is that the Future Fund holds about 20 per cent of its money in cash.

That's partly because of worries that once interest rates around the world start rising, asset prices are likely to fall.

As the fund is taking quite a bit of risk with the rest of its portfolio, it has the cash component as a counter-balance.

Although the Future Fund has 28 per cent of its money in shares, of that only 6 per cent is in Australian shares. The rest is in shares listed on overseas developed markets and emerging markets.

The Future Fund has about 12 per cent in private equity, which can include risky start-ups, and 15 per cent in "alternative" assets - which are other than traditional assets.

A DIY fund that is in the early part of the accumulation stage is like the Future Fund; there will likely be no drawdowns for years.

Of course, it depends on the trustees' tolerance for risk and expectations of retirement, but maybe they could be taking a bit more risk and enjoying returns closer to those earned by the Future Fund.

It's worth remembering that members of super funds don't have to stay with their funds' balanced options, they can invest in their funds' single-sector options or combinations of them.

Twitter: @jcollett_money

This story What investors can learn from Australia's sovereign wealth fund first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.