The accepted belief that the most engaged superannuation members are the most active has been called into question by an academic from the University of New South Wales.

A survey of 675 Unisuper members found the greatest proportion of fund switching or adjustment in insurance cover was carried out by members who were not fully engaged with their funds.

The study by professor Hazel Bateman, from the school of actuarial and risk studies at the University of New South Wales, started by measuring engagement based on members’ willingness to recommend Unisuper to friends or family. Bateman was speaking at a conference organised by the Paul Wooley Centre for the Study of Capital Market Dysfunctionality at the University of Technology Sydney.

Using a scale in which one is low and 10 high, members who expressed the likelihood of a recommendation between one and six were labelled “detractors”, those who scored it seven to eight were labelled “passives” and those between nine to 10 were called “advocates”.

The detractors had the lowest level of switching funds or modifying insurance, but the highest amount of “engaged” activity was carried out by passive members rather than the advocates.

Bateman said the findings call into question part of the Cooper Review‘s rationale that a lack of member interaction with their superannuation fund was a sign of low engagement.

“Activity should not be used as a proxy for engagement,” she said, adding that the findings show the industry still lacks enough information on member behaviour for it to make such important policy decisions such as the Cooper Review.

Furthermore, she was scornful of the belief that switching out of the default was desirable, describing it as overrated.

Bateman speculated that the most engaged members were less active than passives as they were using the default fund as a means of “information acquisition” and from that position would consider whether a switch of options was needed.

Other findings from the study were that while it was the relatively under-engaged full-time members who were most active, for casual employees there was a straightforward link between rising engagement and high activity.

Another more expected finding from the survey was that males with high incomes were most likely to choose an investment option.

The full paper Just interested or getting involved? Analysis of superannuation attitudes and actions authored by H Bateman, J Deetlefs, I Dobrescu, B Newell, A Ortmann and S Thorp is available at  http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2340824

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