Not unlike Future Fund chairman Peter Costello and his board of guardians, Australia has been in a good paddock in recent years – the nation’s sovereign wealth fund now sits at a meaty $162 billion.
Now the lean times are here, questions are being asked about whether this huge reserve should have a bigger role to play in economic recovery and be making more investments in Australia.
This week, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg called on industry and retail superannuation funds to invest more in Australian businesses, saying he “would like to see them both put to work on domestic infrastructure assets more than they have been”.
So what has the Future Fund, led by another former Liberal treasurer, been doing?
With most super funds carrying about 20 to 25 per cent of their investments in Australian companies, the Future Fund’s latest report on March 31 has it looking decidedly lean with only 6.1 per cent, or $9.87 billion, held in Australian shares.
One senior investment analyst – who asked not to be named – told The New Daily Mr Frydenberg should be asking Mr Costello “when is the Future Fund going to join Team Australia?”
The Future Fund holds more than $44 billion in global and emerging markets, while holding a cash balance of $15.59 billion or 9.6 per cent, and a similar amount in easily converted debt securities.
Its assets are designed to provide long-term investment in infrastructure, education, disability services, medical research and Indigenous services.
Even a small weighting increase from cash to Australian companies would make a huge difference in providing new capital for local businesses with a focus on medical research and infrastructure.
And yet Australians have very little knowledge about how the Future Fund is investing these past months as the global pandemic smashes the economy.
While Australians line up fortnightly to meet mutual obligation requirements to access their meagre JobSeeker payments, it may surprise these battlers to know that oversight every three months is considered adequate for the Future Fund billions.
The New Daily put a series of questions to the fund about its response to the coronavirus-inspired economic collapse and its possible role in supporting Australian business and infrastructure.
The fund referred us back to the March 31 statement by the chairman.
“We recently held a media briefing where we discussed our investment performance, the investment environment and our current priorities,” a Future Fund spokesperson said.
“We’ll be releasing our end-of-year results in August and will hold our usual media briefing so will have more to say then.”
Asked further about the fund’s broader achievements, the spokesperson said the fund’s approach had “delivered a return of 9.2 per cent per annum over 10 years, exceeding the target return of 6.4 per cent per annum and adding over $100 billion in earnings”.
Mr Costello has been a constant presence at the Future Fund having set it up while Treasurer in the Howard government in 2004 and giving the board of guardians a mandate to shore up Australia’s long-term finances without excessive risk.
Two months after leaving politics in October 2009 – with his leadership baton still firmly in its sheath – Mr Costello joined the Future Fund board, ensuring his risk-free move away from public life.
He controversially became chairman in 2012 when the six-member board favoured him over the Gillard government’s choice David Gonski.
At the time the fund was worth around $70 billion.
In his most recent report Mr Costello – who is also chairman of Nine Entertainment, publisher of The Age – made clear that the fund had been managing its risk with one eye on uncertain markets.
“Over the past few years, the board has been selling down a number of illiquid exposures due to high pricing and to increase portfolio flexibility,” Mr Costello said at the time.
“Our dynamic approach has been extremely valuable in helping us prepare for and navigate a historic dislocation brought about by COVID-19. The board is focused on positioning for what remains a challenging and volatile environment.
“As the global economic impact of COVID-19 unfolds, the board will continue to prioritise portfolio flexibility, ensuring the portfolio is robust to a range of possible scenarios and has significant liquidity.
“This will open opportunities from the current market to position ourselves for long-term returns.”
Despite all the talk of long-term returns, Mr Costello was decidedly less interested in the “longer-term” issue of investments that helped mitigate climate change and bushfires when interviewed by Nine newspapers earlier this year.
“As of today, the big short-term risk would be the coronavirus. We don’t know how far that will spread. We don’t know what it will do to the tourism industry. We don’t know what it will do to infrastructure assets such as airports, airlines,” Mr Costello told The Age.
“It’s [climate change] obviously something we look at. It’s a significant thing to look at. It’s not the only thing to look at.”
Within the Future Fund there is plenty of scope for investments in local companies, with the Building Australia Fund designed to including road, rail, ports and broadband and the Education Investment Fund aimed at providing capital investment in higher education and vocational education and training.
The Medical Research Future Fund disperses interest generated to medical research.
Heading towards its end-of-year report, the fund is facing its own internal change with chief executive Raphael Arndt taking up his new job from July 1.
Mr Arndt previously served as the fund’s chief investment officer.
Team Australia, and the future, awaits his investment priorities.