Tax incentives for retirement savings in South Africa

Government provides a means-tested old age pension benefit primarily targeting the most vulnerable individuals in society. The current benefit is a pension of up to R1,860 per month from age 60 years and up to R1,880 per month from age 75 years, on condition that you don’t earn more or have assets more than specified amounts.

Therefore, for most working South Africans, formal retirement savings vehicles are their only source of retirement income. However, insights from the Alexander Forbes Member WatchTM show that the current retirement savings environment is characterised by low contributions, a culture of low preservation rates and a significant proportion of the working population not making provision for retirement.

John Anderson, executive of investments, products and enablement at Alexander Forbes said that on average, 8% of people retire comfortably. “This is despite South Africa’s real returns being one of the highest in the world over the last 120 years.”

The reasons for this include the fact that 33% of people don’t make provision for retirement and, where they do, less than 10% preserve their retirement savings when leaving jobs throughout their working career. To assist in improving this outcome, the government has provided tax incentives to encourage saving for retirement.

However, it appears that some savers don’t fully understand and make use of the tax benefits.

According to Anderson, investors may think they are getting the best possible retirement outcome by investing in discretionary savings vehicles that offer more investment flexibility, but these may not produce the best results in terms of asset accumulation over their working lifetime and providing an income into retirement.

“This is because formal retirement savings vehicles have significant tax advantages to assist in maximising the accumulation of capital and in providing an income in retirement.”

He said the relatively flexible nature of discretionary savings vehicles may seem less restrictive and attractive, but the “retirement” outcomes they ultimately deliver are likely to be misaligned to your desired retirement goal expectations.

“Discretionary savings vehicles do serve a purpose and offer solutions to a myriad of investor needs, but they are in most instances sub-optimal solutions for purposes of maximising the full potential of your retirement funding outcomes.”

The government offers South Africans tax exemptions where savings and investments are retained within a contractual savings vehicle targeting a retirement outcome, such as an employer-sponsored pension fund, provident fund or retirement annuity.

The tax incentives offered up include no tax on interest, no capital gains tax, no dividend withholding tax, no estate duties and tax-free lump sum concessions at retirement. Furthermore, contributions to these contractual savings vehicles are tax deductible, lowering investors’ taxable income.

These are considerable and noteworthy incentives that the government has provided. “Government is looking to put the right frameworks in place to improve the country’s retirement safety nets.

In exchange for these incentives, the framework also encompasses oversight bodies and an array of supplementary prudential protections, such as Regulation 28, that are rooted in ensuring diversified investments aimed at meeting rand-based retirement income liabilities, as well as fostering responsible investment practices and sustainable retirement outcomes,” said Anderson.

“Regarding the debate around offshore allocations, increasing Regulation 28-compliant funds’ offshore exposure outside South Africa from the current 30% all the way to 100% is not the most prudent retirement strategy for the vast majority of South Africans.

“Most South Africans’ liabilities such as school fees, bonds and food expenses are in South Africa and for these, having a greater allocation to South African assets makes sense. Offshore allocations are necessary and do provide diversification benefits to improve the likelihood of meeting retirement income goals and in managing risks.

In addition, the most optimal allocation depends on the individual circumstances and risk appetite. Hence, additional flexibility around the current prudential offshore limits would be welcomed to improve outcomes. However, it is understandable that this needs to be balanced against the other goals the regulations are looking to achieve – especially as these restrictions are a condition of the significant tax benefits provided.

For investors currently looking to unshackle themselves from the prudential investment limits prescribed under Regulation 28, an entry into discretionary savings vehicles to achieve retirement objectives may not be justifiable in most instances. “Discretionary growth portfolios with greater flexibility to invest 100% offshore rarely beat Regulation 28 funds in rand terms in the long run once tax effects are considered,” explains Anderson.

In order to compare formal retirement savings and discretionary savings vehicles, Alexander Forbes modelled the outcomes over a 35-year period using a range of asset class assumptions, tax assumptions and taxable income levels. The modelling also looked at various scenarios, where offshore returns are expected to be higher than local returns and vice versa.

Comparing retirement outcomes between formal retirement savings vehicles and discretionary savings, Anderson notes that the tax benefits realised from formal retirement savings vehicles result in accumulated capital being significantly greater.

The after-tax lump sums and income at retirement was shown to be between 35% and 70% higher when making use of a retirement savings vehicle in the base case scenario.

As well as the initial income being better, the income in retirement is also expected to last longer using formal retirement savings vehicles.

Retirement outcomes under a formal retirement savings vehicle continued to outperform those achieved under discretionary savings vehicles – even in the modelled scenarios where local equities disappoint and offshore returns do well.

“The case for matching formal retirement savings vehicles with the objective of saving for a retirement income is extremely strong. Best advice for meeting retirement objectives with the highest likelihood is to save for retirement through formal retirement savings vehicles – despite the restrictions in relation to Regulation 28.

“Additional and gradual flexibility of Regulation 28 would be welcome and would improve the outcomes further. Any advice suggesting that individuals should cash in their formal retirement savings, pay tax, and then invest the proceeds outside the formal retirement savings system (in, for example, offshore schemes), should be treated with extreme caution,” said Anderson.


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Tax incentives for retirement savings in South Africa