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.
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.
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.
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.
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.