Money Editor for NZ Herald

Experts call for stronger KiwiSaver

Experts are not expecting any major changes to KiwiSaver in today's Budget but can't rule it out after last year's surprise scrapping of the $1000 kickstart.

Finance Minister Bill English pulled the kickstart change out of the bag and made it effective immediately, meaning anyone who had not signed up to KiwiSaver missed out on the incentive permanently.

Despite a statement by Prime Minister John Key that it would not make a blind bit of difference to KiwiSaver sign-ups, rates have dropped from an average of 15,000 a month to less than 9000 a month since the change.

Susan St John, director of Auckland University's Retirement Policy and Research Centre, said the loss of the $1000 kickstart was unfortunate.

"For those struggling to get established in KiwiSaver with small beginnings, the $1000 was a cushion against the erosion of fees and low returns.

"Its loss has been distributionally perverse. Once again the baby boomer got the best out of this policy and then it is eliminated for the next generation."

St John said she would like to see the kickstart reinstated for those over 18 and auto-enrolled in KiwiSaver in this year's Budget.

St John said the biggest surprise, which would be in line with the trends seen in recent years to remove subsidies, would be to reduce or eliminate the member tax credit.

People currently get 50c for every dollar they contribute, capped at $521 a year from the government.

"This too would be distributionally unfortunate," St John said.

But English is playing his cards close to his chest. Asked this week if the Budget might include auto-enrolment to KiwiSaver, he hinted there might be something related to KiwiSaver in the Budget but "not necessarily" auto-enrolment.

The Government has proposed auto-enrolment of all workers in the past but ruled it out last year as too costly until the books were in a better shape.

KiwiSaver expert Mary Holm said she hadn't heard of any potential Budget changes but would like to see a reduction in the contribution holiday from five years to one and the ability to automatically increase contribution levels by 0.5 per cent a year until a nominated level.

Both ideas are being considered by the Commission for Financial Capability, which is due to report back to the Government by the end of the year on its three-yearly review of retirement policy.

Claire Matthews, a KiwiSaver expert at Massey University, said she would be strongly opposed to any more changes to KiwiSaver.

"Unfortunately, based on past experience, I won't be surprised to see a change, because the politicians appear unwilling to leave it alone."

Matthews said she would like to see compulsory membership for 18- to 65-year-olds, a review of contribution rates to make it easier to contribute at a higher level and a review of the contribution holiday rules.

How National changed savings scheme

2016: Will drop the income caps for second-chance home buyers from July allowing them to take their own money out of KiwiSaver. An asset test will still apply.

Budget 2015: Scrapped the $1000 kickstart incentive saving $500 million over four years.

April 2015: Changed the first-home buyer subsidy to Home Start increasing the potential government subsidy from a cap of $5000 up to $10,000 but only for people who build new homes.

2014: Government increases the number of default KiwiSaver providers from five to nine.

2013: Minimum employee and employer contribution increases from 2 per cent to 3 per cent as of April 1 but will stop there, countering Labour's previous proposal to increase it to 4 per cent.

2011: The government's subsidy - called a member tax credit - is halved from $1042 to $521 from July 1 and employer contributions will now be taxed.

2009: From April the $40 fee subsidy is ditched. Employees can now contribute at 2 per cent and the employer subsidy is dropped.

November 2008: National is elected to Government led by Prime Minister John Key.

- NZ Herald

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