Rarely has there been such a concerted warning from financial regulators as we’ve seen in recent days about the exposure of the self-managed superannuation fund industry to investment property markets. It has now emerged as the first financial regulatory test of the new government.

For those with a memory longer than five minutes — which doesn’t seem to include Assistant Treasurer Arthur Sinodinos, based on his comments in the Financial Review today — it’s a problem dripping with irony and big risks.

As the RBA went to some lengths to explain in yesterday’s second Financial Stability Review of the year, this is a problem that successive federal governments have created. The RBA explains a series of legislative steps and other changes from 2006 up to 2010 that cleared the way for self-managed super funds to step up their investment in property, especially geared residential property.

The central bank said Australian households continued to show prudence in managing their finances compared with 10 years ago, with a higher rate of saving and a slower pace of credit growth. This included taking advantage of low interest rates by paying down their existing mortgage debts and other debt.

But (and there’s always a but or 20 in documents like this) “[t]here are some signs that households are taking on more risk in their investment decisions,” the RBA said. “The potential for a further increase in property gearing in self-managed superannuation funds is a development that will be monitored closely by authorities for its implications, both for risks to financial stability and consumer protection.” The bank said the same in last week’s RBA board minutes — the broader context for the RBA’s concern is the revival in housing price growth:

“An increase in housing market activity more generally is not surprising given reductions in interest rates. However, it is important that those purchasing property maintain realistic expectations of future dwelling price growth. In contrast to the decades leading up to the crisis — when dwelling prices grew rapidly in response to disinflation and financial deregulation — long-run future growth in dwelling prices might be expected to be more in line with income growth.”

And to underline the importance of self-managed super funds, which now have around a fifth to a quarter of their assets in property, the RBA devoted separate article to them and this explanation in the report’s foreword:

“In this issue of the Review, a particular focus has been placed on the self-managed superannuation fund (SMSF) sector. Although this sector does not currently pose material risks to financial stability, it is important for the financial position of the household sector and has a number of aspects that warrant careful observation in the period ahead. Changes to legislation in recent years have permitted superannuation funds, including SMSFs, to borrow for investment, for example to purchase property.”

What changes? The Howard government (when Sinodinos was Howard’s chief of staff) established “Choice of Fund” for super in July 2005 in an effort to undermine the industry super sector; it allowed individuals to choose which superannuation funds, including an SMSF, their employer’s superannuation guarantee contributions are paid into. The 2007 “Simplified Superannuation” legislation eliminated tax on super benefits for over-60s and for a limited period encouraged individuals to pump up to $1 million into their super funds, which massively inflated member contributions to self-managed funds. And in 2010, borrowing rules were clarified to protect other assets in self-managed funds if funds had borrowed money to purchase assets, which had been permitted by the 2007 changes.

As the bank notes, these changes all drove SMSFs toward property investment:

“Since then, property holdings by SMSFs have increased and this type of investment strategy is being heavily promoted. The sector therefore represents a vehicle for potentially speculative demand for property that did not exist in the past. SMSFs and other retail investors have also been the dominant class of purchasers of hybrid securities recently. These investors seem to have been attracted by the higher yields offered on hybrids compared with conventional debt securities; it is important that they fully appreciate and price in the risks embedded in these more complex products.”

As the history of legislative change makes clear, SMSFs are a favoured sector of the Coalition and its media cheerleaders. The Right might like retail super funds because they keep a diehard Liberal constituency, financial planners, rolling in fees, but they’re ultimately run by AMP and the big banks. SMSFs have the air of rugged individualism about them. Judith Sloan, for example, has repeatedly suggested that industry super funds have been “haemorraghing” members and money to SMSFs (when it’s actually retail funds that have been losing out — the most recent APRA data for 2012-13 shows industry super increasing market share while retail funds go backwards and SMSFs have been flat).

And Mathias Cormann, who was shadow assistant treasurer in opposition, used to spruik SMSFs. In May this year he rejoiced in how “[a] growing number of Australians are taking advantage of the opportunities they perceive from self-managed super,” Cormann said. “It gives you more control, it gives you choice, it gives you the opportunity to tailor your investment strategies for retirement according to your individual needs, but it also of course can come with increased risk.”

Ah — the increased risk — especially given SMSFs are not entitled to compensation if they are the victims of theft or fraud in APRA-regulated funds. Cormann was unhappy that the previous government had left SMSFs out of compensation for the victims of the Trio fraud in which investors in APRA-regulated funds were ripped off. “In all of the circumstances, we do believe that there is a case for the government to look more closely as to whether there would be some justification for a level of compensation, if not for the full amount of the loss, but at least a level of compensation.”

Cormann didn’t take the bait offered at the time and back a general compensation arrangement for SMSFs — he was only applying it to the Trio circumstances. But with SMSFs rushing into property — and particularly riskier commercial property — you can bet the heat will be on if a big property collapse burns a lot of SMSFs. And that heat will not merely be on politicians, but on anyone nearby with deep pockets — which will mean the banks.

Sinodinos is now singing a different tune to Cormann’s. He hasn’t lauded the surge in SMSFs as the triumph of Howardesque aspirationalism and choice; instead he described it as “[o]n one level … quite understandable”. However, “we have to make sure that no matter what the vehicle is, it’s done in such a way that the ultimate objective is to preserve and maximise the savings for retirement. In the super space we need to make sure it’s a level playing field and that you get appropriate competition between the different funds, the industry funds, the self-managed super funds and that’s the starting point.”

Perhaps Sinodinos forgot he was “present at the creation” of this issue back in 2005. But he, or at least the Treasury advisers who will have been briefing him over the last week, have worked out that SMSFs’ exposure to the property sector contains the seeds not merely for a lot of angry victims but for a systemic problem: if the SMSF sector’s $80-100 billion in property investments goes bad, the impacts will be felt well beyond retirees, into the banks and the entire property market.