The year 2018 was when we all learnt some hard money lessons. We learnt that stock prices that go up very fast can zoom down too. We learnt that debt funds are not fixed deposits and returns are not assured. We learnt that real estate revivals can take years and years, and 2018 was not that year. We learnt that governments can change the rules of the game around taxation making it better or worse for you. 2018 was the year in which we learnt the meaning of risk.
There were four kinds of risks that we took home this year. First, the risk of chasing high returns. Many of you may be holding a portfolio that has mostly small- and mid-cap funds. That’s because you saw the 40% plus one year returns in 2017 and went all out to harvest that return. I can remember plenty of conversations with first-time mutual fund investors who had jumped right into the deep end with all their money in the risky part of the market. Warnings would fall on deaf years as the return chasers thought the SIP was their safety belt. 2018 saw a bloodbath in both the mid- and small-cap categories. Investors are staring at an average loss of 12% in mid-caps and around 18% in small-caps. The worst small-cap funds have lost almost a third of the invested value—or ₹1 lakh has become ₹70,000. If you had your entire money in small- and mid-caps, your portfolio is bleeding. But if you had a mix of large-cap, multi-cap and ELSS funds, the red will be less stark. Just buying last year’s winner is not a good strategy for mutual fund investors. 2018 told us that. Understand what a ‘diversified portfolio’ means and implement it in your money box.
eading the Irdai (Insurance Regulatory Development Authority of India) draft on updating regulations for unit-linked insurance plans and traditional policies, you get the impression that somebody gave an aspirin when what was needed was a heart surgery. Product structures in finance are taking on a new importance globally because mis-selling and unsuitable sales can be reduced by taking the tricks and traps out of these products. This simply means that the costs and benefits are better defined and marked so that investors are able to understand the features of the products properly. Product structure rules also deal with early exits and their costs so that investors are not trapped in products they buy.
Both anecdotes and data seem to suggest that Indian health insurance polices that are bought by us as individuals don’t pay up as much as they should. As we listen to the stories of our friends and family about the run around given by hospitals and medical insurance firms to pay up claims of a hospital bill, we quietly send up a prayer—please let me not be the one whose claim is rejected if I ever need to use my policy. There is increasing distrust in the medical insurance market for privately bought covers. Covers bought by corporations, called group covers, seem to have less problems of claims getting rejected.
The anecdotes are supported by data. A May 2018 working paper, titled Fair Play in Indian Health Insurance has done a deep dive into the sector. The big findings are two. One, claims are not paid as much as they should be. Two, India has the highest complaints rate when compared with other countries.
For the more than 25 crore policyholders of Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC), the LIC-IDBI Bank headlines are very upsetting. LIC will use up to ₹ 13,000 crore of policyholder money to buy up to a 51% stake in IDBI Bank, an asset nobody wants to touch. With stressed assets of ₹ 55,588.26 crore and bad loans a huge 28% of the total loan book, IDBI Bank is probably the worst of the bad banks of India. With its own paid-up capital at just ₹ 100 crore as on 31 March 2017, LIC will use policyholder money entrusted to it to make this equity investment.
LIC has been the gilt-edged long-term safety net for most of post-Independence middle India. “LIC kara lo” is a refrain heard in Indian homes the minute the first salary of the young adult of a family begins to come in. There is public anger when this security of savings comes under threat. There are lots of reasons the policyholders are worried. They are worried about the safety of their money—what if the entire money goes down the drain. They are worried about this being a precedent to more such toxic asset purchases. They are worried about the haste with which the insurance regulator has interpreted a rule to allow this sale—insurance firms are not allowed to hold more than a 15% equity stake in a single firm to prevent concentration of risk.
The news of the appointment of Subhash Chandra Khuntia as the insurance regulator on 1 May 2018 came as a surprise to most financial sector watchers. Of the eight people shortlisted for the final round of screening, Khuntia was the only bureaucrat, the rest were insurance industry insiders, including the serving Life Insurance Corp. of India chairman V.K. Sharma, New India Assurance chairman and managing director (CMD) G. Srinivasan, member Life at Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority of India (Irdai) Nilesh Sathe, and K. Sanath Kumar, CMD, National Insurance. The choice of a person with limited domain knowledge over others who have spent their entire careers working in this very technical industry was the surprise. Remember that it took an earlier outsider, J. Hari Narayan, the first three years of his five-year term to understand the sector. In fact, by the time he demitted office, he understood the sector so well that it went against the then government’s own agenda to allow him to continue. So what has gone into the decision to appoint an outsider as the head of a regulatory body that watches over Rs28 trillion of household savings and over Rs2.2 trillion of general insurance money?
Two and a half months after T.S. Vijayan retired, the insurance regulatory body, the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority of India (Irdai), has got its 5th chairman, Subhash Chandra Khuntia. A former chief secretary to the Karnataka government, he has his desk overloaded as he takes over the wheel of a body that regulates firms managing over Rs28 trillion of household savings through life insurance and another Rs2.2 trillion in the non-life insurance space.
The insurance regulator has been an outlier in the financial regulatory space. While disagreements with the government by independent regulators are well reported, the conduct of the insurance regulator has left policy makers, the financial sector and analysts open mouthed. Many decisions over the past few years have been in the face of global moves by regulators on issues of costs and transparency. Raising front commissions in life insurance products, repackaging what were illegal payouts as “rewards”, doing away with a persistency target to ensure that agents don’t churn policyholders and continuing with fuzzy disclosures in both life and general insurance products are just some of the actions that have left households even more vulnerable to mis-selling and outright fraud by banks and agents.
Every time people who have defined benefit retirement plans make rules for the market, their lack of understanding comes across clearly. Take people in the Ministry of Finance for instance, and then look at what subsequent Budgets have put in place. Not only is there arbitrage between asset classes on the definition of long term, there is arbitrage within an asset class too on the basis of which product you choose to buy. If tax policy is used to nudge behaviour, there is some serious malfunction in the Indian policy that is nudging in all the wrong directions and all the wrong products.
In India we answer the question, ‘How many years does it take for an asset to become long-term?’ in different ways depending on the asset. You have to hold equity for 1 year, real estate for 2 years and debt for 3 years for the profit made to become ‘long term’. This classification of assets is against Finance 101, since both equity and real estate are asset classes that cook slowly over time. They give their best performance over a long period of time. How long is long? Data analysis done by my colleague Kayezad E. Adajania (read it here) shows that it takes about a 7-year holding period to iron out volatility in equity. The thumb rule for real estate puts the cycle at about 10 years. Market-linked debt (as opposed to relatively fixed-return debt products such as bank deposits) as an asset class for retail investors is mostly used for short-term purposes for emergency funds, for near-term cash needs and for income generation. It would be more logical to make debt go long term at 1 year and keep a 5-year threshold for long term for both equity and real estate. At the very least, policymakers need to equalize the definition of long term across asset classes.