Are Indian stocks in bubble territory? An interview given by Uday Kotak to The Indian Express (you can read it here) asks this question. Kotak is making valid points when he says that there is a wall of money coming at the market which does not have enough stocks to absorb the cash. A strong institutional flow is bringing Indian household money to the stock market through mutual funds, unit-linked insurance plans (Ulips), National Pension System (NPS) and the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO). This money is going into a few hundred stocks because the Indian market lacks depth. The market cap of the top stock is Rs6 trillion and that of the 100th stock is just Rs32,000 crore. The market looks overvalued on metrics of the current price-to-earnings (PE) ratio, which is much higher than the 10-year average. Valuations can go back down in two ways—markets can crash, bringing prices down or the earnings can grow; both bring the PE down. The wait for earnings has kept the market buoyant in the past few years and the wait is still on. Which will come first, the market crash or the earnings bump? As retail investors, we have no option but to give our money an equity exposure; see Table 1. But we will never have the relevant insight to time the market. We also know that markets go up and down, get overvalued, crash and then recover. See Table 2. So, is there a way in which we can ride out the bubble, if indeed there is one?
Regulations in the financial sector need to keep evolving as the market grows in depth, breadth and complexity. Think of this as the need for road rules and a traffic management system in a large metro—what worked 30 years ago cannot work today. It was possible to travel 5 km in Delhi without running into traffic lights or traffic cops 30 years ago as road traffic was thin. A malfunctioning traffic light today causes hours of traffic jams. As the traffic volume rises, cities resort to one-way traffic rules, higher parking fees and other measures to curb traffic in the city centre. Financial markets are similar; regulations need to keep moving to keep pace with the changing face of the market. Has the market changed? Yes, the size of the assets under management by the three large parts of the retail financial market—mutual funds (only retail), life insurance and the National Pension System (NPS)—crossed Rs34 trillion in FY 2017, up from Rs22 trillion just 3 years ago. Both the volume of money and the number of people on-boarding these products has risen sharply over the past few years. The share of household savings in financial products has been rising and now more than one-third of household savings find their way into financial products. In addition to the urban users of these products, a new category of investors are getting added through the Jan Dhan accounts. These are people who will be first-time users of many financial products as they move from cash, gold and real estate.
Eat the Rich: a Treatise on Economics
By P.J. O’Rourke, Publisher: Picador, 1998
If you’ve ever wondered why some countries are rich and other poor, you are in good company. American political satirist and journalist Patrick Jake O’Rourke asked the same question and undertook a geographic investigation into this subject. He begins by asking a simple question: “Why do some places prosper and thrive and other just suck? It’s not a matter of brains. No part of the earth….is dumber than Beverly Hills, and the residents are wading in gravy. In Russia, meanwhile, where chess is a spectator sport, they’re boiling stones for soup.”
If you like your economics lesson to come through a snarky irreverent narrative, this book is just your thing. The author travels to Wall Street, Albania, Sweden, Cuba, Russia, Tanzania and Hong Kong and tries to decode the story behind the rich-poor outcome. He asks how Tanzania, a peaceful, uncrowded country well endowed by nature, can turn everything to nothing. He asks how a conflict-ridden, overpopulated, resource poor Hong Kong can be so vibrant and rich. Each country visited completes the matrix of questions on: what works and what does not.
Rourke ends the book with a check list of attributes for wealthy countries: hard work, education, responsibility, property rights, rule of law and democratic government. Remember this book was written in 1998. The China story was still happening and some of the conclusions of the book are now being debated. China makes the relationship between a democratic government and economic growth not that linear. A bit outdated, but still a hugely entertaining and educating read.
The year 2017 was marked by four distinct money events. One, it was the year in which systematic investment plans (SIPs) in mutual funds became a household name, leading to a fat pipeline of over Rs5,000 crore a month (that’s Rs60,000 crore a year) flowing from households to equity funds. Two, 2017 was the year in which investors finally gave up waiting for real estate to recover. Despite the bravado of the builder, broker and banker on the future of real estate, the math just did not add up to support prices that are still very high. Why would you invest in something that yields less than a bank deposit after taxes? Renting clearly was the winner over buying. Three, gold and bank deposits lost their sheen as prices dipped and rates fell. Four, risk-averse investors, who feared mutual funds because of their risk, went all out on crypto-money—not just bitcoin, other cryptocurrencies were also on the investment radar, as were non-regulated initial coin offerings (ICOs). What lies ahead in 2018 for your money? The answer in one line is: a continuation of the 2017 trends.
A recent story reports on mis-selling and fraud by a bank in rural Rajasthan where they allegedly made bank deposit customers put their signatures on life insurance products of a group firm. While the story of people of small means being cheated out of their money is worrying enough, what is of greater concern is that this problem is not limited to one insurance company or bank, or location. Life insurance mis-selling and fraud by bank branches is systemic in the country. The evidence to this statement comes from three sources. The first is anecdotal: almost everybody who has a bank account has a mis-selling or fraud story to tell about life insurance. For those who superciliously turn away from anecdotes, there are three academic papers that nail the problem. In 2014, two economists and I, wrote a paper estimating that policyholders lost over Rs 1.5 trillion from mis-sold life insurance plans between 2007 and 2012. In 2017, I published another paper that mystery shopped bank branches to catch mis-selling. I found that bank officials lied most of the time on features around costs and costs of early redemptions to potential customers. A 2015 paper by Anagol et al find that agents overwhelmingly recommend life insurance products that are unsuitable to the customer but get the agent high commissions. Three, two government committees, Swarup and Bose, have found life insurance to have very high front incentives that cause sharp sales and fraud. (Disclosure, I have served on both the committees).
The debate around the Financial Resolution and Deposit Insurance (FRDI) Bill is good news. The citizens of a country must engage with a potential law that affects their money. I wrote on the issue last week, where I argued that the FRDI Bill proposes an early warning system for crisis in financial firms. You can read it here. Based on their financials, banks and other financial firms will be classified according to their risk. When the risk becomes more than moderate, a set of data reporting protocols kick into place, giving the system ample time to prevent the bank (and other financial firms) from failing. If it indeed does fail, there is a process-driven system for mergers and take-overs. It is only when all of this fails that a bank goes into liquidation. It is like getting a warning 10 miles before the train hurtles towards a cliff.
When you move a system from personality-based solutions to rule of law, there is a painful period of readjustment of the old way of doing things to the new. People, institutions and analysts all need to readjust to the new reality. The recent commentary around the Financial Resolution and Deposit Insurance (FRDI) Bill that is up for debate in the winter session of the Indian Parliament has picked up on one section (section 52) of the Bill, ignoring everything else in the 125 pages, and has resulted in panic about the safety of bank deposits if this bill gets passed. I read the Bill over the weekend and this is my understanding of what the aim of the Bill is and what it means for you.