You may have missed it, but David Shearer recently picked up National’s policy of not contributing to the Cullen Fund until 2017/18 because the Government’s in deficit.
Of course, there is nothing fundamental about being in deficit that alters the case for investing the Cullen Fund any more than there is for transport investment or any other capital spending. It makes as much sense to say you shouldn’t put money in the Cullen Fund when there’s a deficit as to say you shouldn’t unless the surplus is over $5,691,000,000 – zero is an arbitrary and meaningless point. As long as the return exceeds the Crown’s cost of capital, it’s worthwhile.
So, how much have the canned contributions cost us so far? $1.2 billion.
If the contributions had continued at $180m per month and National hadn’t made that weird one-off $250m payment at the end of the 2008/09 year (if investing in the Cullen Fund was so crazy as they claimed, why did they finish with an extra big payment?), we would now have $8.6b more in the kitty to pay for our future superannuation costs and gross government debt would be $7.4b higher – net government debt would be $1.2 billion less than it is now.
(all the data for working this out is here)
And, because, the returns are compounding, the lost gains in the last three years will get exponentially larger (even if returns only keep up with inflation) over time.
Since the contributions were cancelled, the fund has averaged a return of 1.18% a month versus the average Crown borrowing cost of 0.22% per month. 5.5 times. Over its full life, including the big losses in 2008/09, the Cullen Fund has exceeded its goal of beating the Crown’s cost of capital by 2.5%.
Cancelling the Cullen Fund contributions may end up being the costliest mistake this National has made. Because the contributions and the lost gains on them will have to be made up later. See, there’s a legislative requirement that there is a certain amount of money in the Fund (roughly $100b) when it begins to pay down at the end of next decade. The Fund is currently $20.5b when it would be $29.1b if the contributions had continued, and that gap get exponentially wider every year the contributions are suspended.
The legislation has a formula that works out the amount of contributions needed each year to get to that $100b target.
To try to make up the lost ground, when contributions resume in 2017/18, Treasury’s model says we’ll have to put over $2 billion a year in, whereas, if we kept the contributions up the whole time, it would be $1.5b. And the lost time means we’ll never close the gap – in 2030, the Fund will be worth $96b if the contributions only resume in 2017/18, but if they resumed today, there would be $110b.
By failing to invest early, we’re losing tens of billions in the long-run. Tens of billions that would pay for our superannuation when the time comes and would right now be reducing our net debt to the rest of the world.
But that’s National for you, short-termists and failures to the end.