In the space of a few years, the KiwiSaver industry has established a significant presence in New Zealand's financial landscape. About 2.5 million New Zealanders belong to a scheme, with nearly 200,000 joining last year. Assets controlled by schemes are worth about $32.5 billion, or 12 per cent of GDP. Ten schemes have at least $1 billion in assets, and a further six manage between $200 million and $1 billion.

With these sorts of numbers it is little wonder fee income is growing. An investigation by the Herald's data journalism website Insights, using information filed by New Zealand's 39 schemes with the Financial Markets Authority, found total annual fees jumped by 16 per cent in 12 months.

In the year ending March 31, 2016, funds charged fees of $357 million. Fees vary among providers but range from just under 0.5 per cent to more than 2 per cent. Investors in higher risk funds run by a provider could expect to pay more in fees, given active management of an investment could deliver better returns. Conversely, KiwiSaver members in conservative default schemes with low-risk passive investments and limited hands-on involvement should not expect to see their returns reduced by high fees.

Erosion of capital is potentially high, especially for members in schemes for a number of years. Steep fees for a six-figure KiwiSaver account could easily see thousands of dollars of income paid over the life of the investment. Providers may well earn their fees but there are steps members can take to protect their savings and ensure they maximise funds cashed out on retirement.

Advertisement

The lesson for members from the Herald's inquiry is for account holders to take an active interest in their investment. To a degree this appears to be happening because the FMA found that members do change between funds, in much the same way power retailers know consumers can be persuaded to change suppliers.

The FMA now requires default providers to report on financial literacy initiatives, including their communications to encourage members to choose an investment fund.

Last year, about 93,000 KiwiSaver members switched between investment funds. The amount involved was almost $1.4 billion. A net $100 million was switched out of active default funds and conservative funds. Members who switched went in the main to balanced funds, followed by growth funds.

So, clearly, thousands of people are taking a close interest in their money but equally it appears many more have let things slip. Last year nearly 1 million members, or 42.6 per cent, were regarded as non-contributors because they failed to make contracted payments for at least two months. But while they neglected to keep up their contributions, they would still be paying fees and potentially losing money. And of course by not making regular payments, members risk missing out on the Government's $521 tax credit. For individuals, the good news is there now are accessible and powerful tools to monitor investments and compare providers. For a long time, it seems members often have ignored their account, assuming it would grow. The impact fees could have on an investments suggests that it pays to keep a close watch.