KiwiSaver members hold their nerve amid financial market volatility

By Nicholas Pointon for RNZ

KiwiSaver members have been holding their nerve amid extreme volatility in global financial markets.

Balances have come under intense pressure this year as equity markets contend with decade-high inflation, rising interest rates and the economic fallout from the war in Ukraine, which had sent commodity prices surging.

The total value of KiwiSaver funds fell $1.5 billion to $87.3b in the three months ended March, according to data from investment research firm Morningstar.

They have likely fallen further since then, as Wall Street's main indices had fallen by between 9 and 21 percent in the year to date, while the local stock exchange was down 13 percent for the year.

The last time markets were hammered this hard was in March 2020, when COVID-19 first emerged.

It prompted a 54 percent increase in the number of KiwiSaver members switching to conservative fund types, which meant they effectively locked in their losses because they missed out the subsequent rebound.

At the time, the Financial Market Authority said the data suggested that it had more work to do to help investors to see their KiwiSaver as a long-term investment.

However, it seems history has not repeated itself in light of the current downturn, according to some of the country's largest KiwiSaver providers.

ASB Bank said over the four months from February, nearly 2500 of its members moved their investments to a conservative fund, which amounts to about 0.5 percent of its member base.

"To put this in into context, back in 2020 when COVID uncertainty was at its peak, just over 3 percent of our members switched.

"There are lots of reasons why people might have moved funds including looking at buying their first home, retirement or reacting to the market volatility," it said.

ANZ Bank, which was reluctant to disclose switching data due to commercial sensitivity, said it had seen a "usual" volume of fund switching over the past six months, which was at "significantly lower levels" than during the first lockdown.

"I think it is a really good sign that our ... retail investors are continuing to mature and think about their investments with a longer-term lens," ANZ head of funds management Fiona Mackenzie told RNZ.

She said March 2020 was the first big market shock many KiwiSavers would have experienced and it seemed that they had learnt from that experience.

Looking ahead, Mackenzie said it was important that people continued to contribute to their KiwiSaver schemes because even as the market goes down, a dollar invested went further, which was the science behind holding your nerve.

"If you are feeling a bit uncomfortable, talk to your provider before you make the move."

Meanwhile, Westpac said it had seen an increase in the number of members moving to more conservative-type funds but this was at much lower levels than it saw two years ago.