Why Indian households remain in financial behaviour that is ‘regressive’ is a question that has wrinkled the brows of many a policy maker. ‘Regressive’ behaviour is the over-exposure of Indian households to cash, gold and real estate instead of financial assets. This behaviour includes a reliance on the moneylender for debt, rather than the formal financial system, and the use of ex-post borrowings to deal with medical and other emergencies rather than purchasing an insurance contract. With the mandate of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), the Tarun Ramadorai committee set out to find answers to some of these questions in 2016. While other committees have looked at the same issue of the strange behaviour of Indian households from the supply side and found serious problems in the way formal markets have been set up, the Ramadorai Committee was asked to look at the problem from the demand side and provide solutions to it. In short, the committee found (read the report here: bit.ly/2iC3GKU) that Indian households are indeed globally unique in their financial behaviour. Not only do they rely heavily on gold and real estate, they are under-insured, have very little pension corpus build-up, take home mortgages much later in life than their mature-market counterparts, and walk into retirement still carrying the burden of debt on their heads.
If in the 1950s somebody wrote a future finance story about India, they may not have predicted the market that faces a retail consumer today. Till the 1990s, your savings and investing decisions were dependent on the government. No wonder Indian households chose gold and real estate as saving sumps. The financial sector was a reflection of the overall direction of the economy. Costs were high, service poor in state-owned and run finance. But post 1991, change came suddenly to finance and this column maps some of those changes as India celebrates 70 years of political and 26 years of economic freedom.
Low Risk High Return Buy 5000 SHARES Of xxxx CMP Rs 7.80 TGT Rs 15 SL Rs 7.70 . Stock Raise Non Stop Till Diwali.” Over the past few weeks some of us would have got messages pushing this one stock.
As markets keep moving up, the frenzied calls and SMS texts that push up a particular stock increase in frequency. I don’t get emails or WhatsApp messages pitching stocks—just calls and SMSes. Some of the callers are really aggressive. Push back at them and they start snarling. Obviously they’re sitting on very steep customer acquisition targets. But we know from past experience that any kind of frenzy usually ends badly. If you gave into the frenzy of real estate a few years back, you’re looking at a nominal erosion of 30-40% of the price you paid. An inflation- and mortgage-cost-adjusted loss will be closer to 50-60%. Frenzies are unsettling. You lose your equilibrium. You get pushed into doing things that you normally won’t do. If you find yourself thinking of suddenly moving money into one stock or one mid-cap mutual fund on a tip, you know you’ve succumbed to the frenzy. Otherwise I’m-safe-in-an-FD (fixed deposit) people are suddenly discovering their risk appetite and want to invest right away on a tip.
Markets are too high, I will wait for them to cool down before I invest. Nifty broke 10,000 and Sensex is at 32,000, is it too high? We’re in bubble territory for sure. Markets are in an overdrive—this ends badly. Markets are looking ahead and pricing in the structural reform the government is doing. Goods and services tax (GST) will cause markets to drop in the next 2 months—we’re just a few days away from a crash. Market is pricing in the long-term benefits of more taxpayers, less black money and better compliance due to GST.
Listen to the voices about the market and you’d imagine people are talking about two very different things. There are two voices that we hear today—one believes that we are already in a stock market bubble. The other believes that small corrections will happen, but we are in a long-term bull run.
How much money we need to retire at age 60 can be answered in many ways. I wrote earlier (you can read it here: bit.ly/2ruHEtK) that you need eight times your annual income at age 60 to retire comfortably. Plenty of people wrote back to say that a more useful benchmark will be an expense multiplier rather than an income multiplier. An expense multiplier is, in fact, a better way to crack the same problem because at the same level of income, different families will have very different expense behaviour. I know families that don’t know where their money goes and others who have tiny expenses because of their chosen lifestyle. An expense multiplier assumes that you know how much you spend. Many families are clueless of their annual expense number—money comes in and money goes out. So get a hold on how much you spend in a year as a first step.
I don’t think there will be many people in urban India who do not have a bank mis-selling story to share. The systemic use of bank branches to mis-sell life insurance products and to churn mutual fund portfolios is now part of the urban Indian discourse. The problem is not new. I remember first raising the issue of banks mis-selling insurance and mutual fund products in 2007 with one deputy governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). I was treated to lunch and anecdotes from those in the room of how people close to them were ripped off by banks. In fact, subsequently, in every committee I served on—Swarup Committee 2009 (bit.ly/2tLat6F) and Bose Committee 2015 (bit.ly/2rS3xmK)—the offline conversations included stories of bank branches turning into dens of tricks and traps. I’ve raised the issue of mis-selling with RBI, and with the ministry of finance, and so have others who work in this space, most notably Moneylife magazine (bit.ly/2t7r5HJ and bit.ly/2sHtN6b), which has raised it on multiple occasions. But the messaging that came down from the towers of oblivion on Mint Street was always the same: not our problem; let the sector regulators deal with this.
As a kid I remember getting irritated whenever the old people would get together. Now they’ll start talking about how expensive everything is, I used to mutter. Back in those days, kids couldn’t utter aloud all the insidious little comments that were swimming around in their heads when adults were around. “Arrey, on a salary of twenty rupees you could run the house and then have something left over? That shawl mamijee wears, no? That cost a full five rupees. Now toh, you can’t buy it for five thousand only.” Everybody shakes their heads. “Tch tch. Zamana hi kharab hai (these are bad times).” As a kid I remember buying sweets for 5 paise and bus tickets cost 25 paise (and I’m on my way to irritating the life out of kids in the family). My daughter has never seen coins below one rupee. Her daughter will probably say the same for fifty bucks. The fall in purchasing power is the reason that we worry about meeting our expenses when we retire.