Ask a 20-year-old who is old and she is likely to say anybody over 40. At 30 you are likely to shift that to maybe 50. At 40, 60 is old. Our perception of who is old keeps moving as we age. Not long ago, an 82-year-old very seriously spoke to me about “that young man of 50”. But it is true that the answer to “who is old” has changed from what it was a hundred years ago. That’s because, the “who is old” question needs to be seen in the context of life expectancy, or the age at which an average person dies. World Bank data puts this number at 52.5 for the world in 1960 and at 71.8 in 2015. The generation that will live to be a 100 may have possibly already been born.
The answer of “who is old” matters in ways that have nothing to do with vanity. It matters to each of us and it matters to a world that is living longer and longer.
It is a brand new financial year and some of you must be gearing up to do things differently this year. But before you begin looking for the next best investment or the next flavour of the year, spend some time thinking about the money mistakes you make. I find that money mistakes come in many grades that move from the very basic to the more sophisticated. I’ll talk about just three right now. Grade one money mistakes are entry level errors, grade two money mistakes are made by more sophisticated investors, and so on. For all the attention that ‘getting rich’ or ‘investing to win’ kind of titles get in the book space, I think they are jumping the gun. Most of us struggle with far more basic issues than making that one winning investment and working towards a jackpot. Identify the grade you’re at in the money mistakes matrix.
Grade 1 Money Mistakes
A very basic error, it is the ground floor of money mistakes. It is to say: I don’t have money to invest. I am too poor. I have no savings. Where is the money? I have no head for numbers. Too difficult for me. No time. Will do it soon. Will hand over money to my spouse, father, brother, good friend who will manage for me. I’m too young to worry. Now I’m too old, what’s the point. These are all loser statements. Don’t make them. I’ve run workshops on money that have had village level NGO workers earning a tiny salary to the mass affluent in big metros. They all had the same look: why am I in the room, I have no money to invest? If the peanut seller outside your office can save some money, so can you. Not having a surplus is easily fixed— you can earn more, spend less and rework your current borrowing and investing patterns. There is no other magic formula to starting a saving surplus in your monthly income rhythm. 1st graders can be identified by their don’t care attitude towards money, which actually hides many insecurities and fears.
I am reading a really cool book. When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel H. Pink is a book about timing. Pink wants to turn timing from art to science and introduce a new genre in book titles, from ‘how to’ to ‘when to’. Pink says it matters when in the day we do things because his research shows that the human race has energy rhythms that are consistent across the world. Most people work better in the morning, hit an energy trough by about 2 pm and then recover by about 3 or 3:30 and then hit much higher levels by evening and 9 pm. What’s so great about that you may be asking? Well, for one, his work finds that scheduling a doctor’s appointment in the morning than in the afternoon may give you better care. Having your parole hearing in the morning carries a higher chance of being set free than in the afternoon. His advice: figure out your energy rhythms and then focus on your most productive and meaningful work in the time you know you are most effective. Leave routine tasks like admin work for the office day energy slump time.
The auditorium was packed. Girls were sitting on the floor in the aisles. I was visiting Banasthali University, 75 km south of Jaipur, to speak to the postgraduate management and journalism students. About 250 curious pairs of eyes were bright with anticipation and I was hoping that I don’t let them down.
For those who don’t know, a quick update on this unique university. The journey of how this university came to be is quite a story. In 1927, the Jaipur state secretary in the home and foreign department, Pandit Hiralal Shastri, left his powerful job to relocate to a remote village (then) called Banthali to work on rural reconstruction. His friends said he’d gone half mad to do this. Who gives up power, prestige and money like this? But he moved himself and his family to the village. One day he found his 11-year-old daughter, Shanta, teaching the village kids under a tree. Sometime later she asked him for a room so that she could teach them without fear of storms or wild animals. He told her—you build the bricks and I will build the room. He forgot about the story thinking that the child will move on to other things. Three months later she showed him 300 handmade bricks she and the village kids had made. I saw one of the bricks that the institution has preserved. To touch the brick made by a determined young lady almost a 100 years ago was surreal. Shastri built that room and decided to give his daughter the best education he could manage. Music and martial art classes were organized. There is a painting of young Shanta in a sari, wielding a lathi and practising in one of the preserved rooms. When you remember that this was in rural Rajasthan in the 1920s when girls were married off as soon as they could be, the image of the lathi-wielding girls just adds to the amazement.
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).