The federal government has spent millions trying to reform the management of Australia’s $1.3 trillion superannuation pool and missed possibly the most important point of all: the appalling, lemming-like investment performance of the managers, advisers who leach billions in fees and charges from that pool every year.

And, as evidence of that, simply look at the performance of the stock market yesterday, and the $65 billion slump in the morning in share values and the $14.5 billion surge in the afternoon (which was actually close to $80 billion from the bottom).

Sure, brokers, bankers and some media commentators said the rebound was helped by talk of the US Federal Reserve doing something to help markets (which it sort of did this morning, but not quite in the way it was rumoured), and that saw share prices surge.

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But you have to ask why the slump and surge happened, and the attendant hundreds of millions of dollars of costs that went with it. Why is a good question they can’t really answer, although according to Goldman Sachs, there were quite a few leading shares looking cheap in afternoon trading.

But they were cheaper yesterday morning at the start of trading, than they eventually finished up. It’s just that they got much cheaper thanks to the stupid, panicky selling wave in morning dealings that was merely another knee-jerk reaction to the big falls on Wall Street and Europe from mostly foreign-owned brokers, investment banks, hedge funds and other big investors.

Locally owned fund managers and investors hopped on the Lemming Express and rode it all the way to the bottom, trashing their clients’ share values, but protecting their bonuses and revenues.

They then rode it all the way back up in the afternoon.

But look at all the brokerage, transfer costs and other charges incurred yesterday: at a net half a per cent, it’s about $400 million of the values of super funds and other clients. Whether it’s all cash outflow and inflow is only known to the accountants.

But consider as well the losses taken on managed funds in the morning, and all the profits made by the buyers sitting on the other side of that selling stampede, and then the waste of the cash generated from selling in the morning to buy back into a rising market in the afternoon.

I was once a trustee of a super fund: if I was one today I would have all the investment managers, advisers (such as asset consultants) in and demand a detailed explanation of their trading yesterday on behalf of the funds I was overseeing, and who was going to pay and how much!

If the fund had lost money, I would ask how that loss was going to be shared, because the selling yesterday morning was silly and unnecessary.

Another question that should be asked was whether there was any shorting yesterday: that has not been mentioned in the market talk this morning and late yesterday, but the freefall in the 220-point plunge would have been ideal territory for the sharks and shorts. No price discovery there, just rampant greed and rorting. And if there was shorting (naked is illegal, or covered, which isn’t), who lent the shares to the sharks. If it was super fund managers, then they stand doubly accused of rorting their clients’ money.

Sitting and doing nothing yesterday turns out to have been the best approach: client money was protected and there was a little bit of a gain at the end. All the angst and money-wasting dealings in the morning would have been avoided. And fund managers and others can’t argue they had to sell because everyone else was.

Didn’t they realise that Australian and Asian markets were the first to react violently to the US credit downgrade on Monday and that Wall Street’s big fall (made silly by the big rebound this morning, by the way), was catch up and not a new development? No, they clearly didn’t and the lemmings quickly became headless chickens and plunged into the market when trading opened.

So will there be thousands of shame-faced and apologetic investors, brokers and fund managers for yesterday’s market slump and surge?

I doubt it. Their arrogance and “we know better” attitude helped cause the various iterations of the GFC, from the first one in 2007-09, so we shouldn’t expect an apology for yesterday.

And nowhere was the absurd and wasteful volatility better seen than in the cornerstone of the market, the banking sector, where billions of dollars in market value was wiped, then restored yesterday.

The selling wave that hit the banks was despite our banks being better placed than they were in 2007-09, we know that from the higher savings rate, we know that from the big inflow of deposits and the lower offshore borrowings. And we also know it from the banking analysts at many of the same banks and brokers who drove yesterday’s selling.

Clearly the sell side of the brokers and banks and the advisers to fund managers (and those fund managers) don’t read that research, or don’t believe what the banks are telling them (as well as the Reserve Bank and APRA, the main regulator).

And yet those geniuses in the markets sold the banks for all they were worth in the morning, then bought the shares back in the afternoon at a faster rate, and at higher prices than they were at the start of trading.

Falls of 4% to more than 7% were seen across the sector in the morning as investors sold, despite the banks being well capitalised, in no trouble and very profitable.

NAB shares lost about 5% or $1.25 to a new low of $19.64 before they came screaming back in the afternoon to end this incredible day up 2.9% or 60c at $21.50.

The CBA shed $2.21 or close to 5% as well and touched a new low of $43.41.

Ahead of its 2011 profit report (released this morning, it earned a record $6.8 billion) CBA shares jumped 3.6% or $1.66 to close at $47.28. That’s a total fluctuation of more than $4.80 or well over $7 billion in the CBA’s value. Why? No reason at all, just panicking fund managers and other investors.

Westpac fell by about 5.2% in the morning, before closing up 2.2% at $19.26. The story was the same with the ANZ, down 4.5% in the morning, up 2.7% in the afternoon to $19.01.

Macquarie Group lost more than 6.8% in the morning before it rebounded nearly 3% to end at $23.50.

And Bendigo and Adelaide, which reported a solid result on Monday for 2011, saw its shares lose 7.8% in the morning and recover 1.5% in the afternoon to $8.07.

Why the shares in probably the safest of the sectors in the market had to be sold yesterday in their millions, and were then bought back in the afternoon, will be the biggest mystery of yesterday’s outing by the lemmings of Australian finance.

The financial position of the banks didn’t change during the day one bit, and yet they went from being unwanted to top of the pops.

That just about sums up the stupidity of the Australian financial classes, especially when confronted with a chance to dip repeatedly into the super honey pot and rort their clients’ money completely unchallenged.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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