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.
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).
ICICI Prudential Mutual Fund’s new fund offer (NFO) of Bharat 22 exchange traded fund (ETF) is in the market this week seeking investor money for the government’s disinvestment programme. Looking through the document, I was struck with the expense ratio of this fund. At 0.0095% per year, this is the cheapest ETF in the market today. Understand what this cost means first. The expense ratio describes the price you pay for the facility of handing your money over to a fund manager and it is charged on your funds under management. For example, a Rs10 lakh corpus, with an expense ratio of 1%, will cost you Rs10,000 a year. You don’t have to cut a cheque for this cost since it is taken by the fund house out of your corpus—that’s why it is called net asset value, it is ‘net’ of costs. Expense ratios have a big impact on investor returns over a lifetime of investing. At 0.0095%, Bharat 22 will cost you Rs95 a year. Reliance AMC’s CPSE ETF (the first government disinvestment fund) costs 0.07% or Rs700 a year. A 2% managed fund expense ratio costs you Rs20,000 a year.
At the 4th edition of the annual Mint Mutual Fund Conclave last week, the overarching theme was the question: should FY 2018 be called the year of the mutual fund? For an industry that just two years back was still calling itself ‘nascent’ 24 years after privatisation, it is a giant leap forward to have assets under management that have tripled in the last five years. Mutual fund assets are now one-fifth of bank deposits and almost two-thirds of the assets under management by the life insurance industry. G. Mahalingam, whole-time member of the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi), in his keynote address, said that possibly the external factors that helped this growth, such as easy money policy overseas for the last few years and more recently, demonetisation, are coming to an end, and now the real mettle of the industry will be tested. He said that several regulatory measures that are coming in the days ahead will ensure that the industry is investor-friendly. One, the scheme merger announcement will be made soon by Sebi. Two, the work on the total expense ratio (TER) going down must begin. Third, investor-friendly disclosure measures such as using the total return index should be taken. “Good times are the best times to swallow bitter medicine,” he said.
Should you rent or buy a house? Many young families face this decision when they move out of the joint family to be on their own or when they shift to a new city for work. Notice that this is not an invest-or-not question, to which the answer will be very different. This is a should-I-rent-a-house-that-I-will-live-in or should-I-buy-now question. For others already on rent, the family conversation about ‘rent or buy’ comes up each time the math is done on how much rent flows out of the family budget each month. “If we had bought our own house, we’d be owning it soon rather than all this money getting wasted in rent” is something most renting families stress over. I’ve had this conversation at home many years ago; especially when money is tight and the growing family’s needs are many, the rent vs buy decision seems even more crucial. Why not put money down for something you will own rather than down the drain in rent?
If real estate markets were efficient, there should be almost no arbitrage between the decision to rent a house or buy it. The rent and the equated monthly instalment (EMI) would be not all that far away and you would be able to stretch just a bit to compensate for the mortgage cost to turn the rent into an EMI. But real estate markets in India are far from this utopia and follow no rational rules for valuations for residential real estate. At current market prices where the rental yields (annual rent divided by value of property, or the return you get from the asset if you were to rent it out in percentage terms) are just 1-2%, renting is clearly better than buying. Look at it this way— what you can rent for Rs25,000 a month will cost you at least Rs1.2 lakh in EMI in Delhi and Mumbai.
I have a friend who lives well when she earns more and gets into a frugal mode when business is bad. An artist, her income fluctuates, so does her lifestyle. Up when there is more and down when there is less. Her mood, though, is quite delinked from her financial status—always up. Last year, she said she wanted to start systematic investment plans (SIPs). Why? Because everybody around her was starting SIPs, and it seemed a cool thing to do—getting financial security is good, no? Yes, sure, but it has taken her the first 40 something years to get to even talk about financial security. Better late and all that. The first thing I asked her to do was to put down a number that she needed each month to live. It’s very difficult to pin down an average monthly expense for a person who matches expenses to earnings every few months. But the budgeting exercise, which is the building block for most plans, takes on much bigger importance for people with fluctuating incomes. Without knowing what you spend each month, there is no financial plan.