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.
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).
When you move a system from personality-based solutions to rule of law, there is a painful period of readjustment of the old way of doing things to the new. People, institutions and analysts all need to readjust to the new reality. The recent commentary around the Financial Resolution and Deposit Insurance (FRDI) Bill that is up for debate in the winter session of the Indian Parliament has picked up on one section (section 52) of the Bill, ignoring everything else in the 125 pages, and has resulted in panic about the safety of bank deposits if this bill gets passed. I read the Bill over the weekend and this is my understanding of what the aim of the Bill is and what it means for you.
Bank deposits are the one true friend of a middle class Indian and any threat to their safety is terribly upsetting. The government will introduce a new bill in Parliament in the winter session called the Financial Resolution and Deposit Insurance (FRDI) bill. One section of this bill is causing bank depositors to fear for the safety of their money. I read the bill over the weekend and this is my understanding of what the aim of the bill is and what it means for you.
If you have had the occasion to have economist and Nobel laureate Richard Thaler sign a book for you, it’s likely that you have one that says, “Nudge for good” or “Misbehave for good”. Nudge and Misbehaving are books written by Thaler. Nudge, written earlier than Misbehaving, is about tweaking the choice architecture so that people make better decisions. For example, if we know that people will choose one item out of the first three on a menu card, a nudge would put healthy food in those spaces, while keeping all the other choices at number four and below. Nudges work to help us overcome our biases that prevent us making good decisions. Bad nudges have been used by corporations to trick us into doing what they want and may not be in our interest. For example, an auto tick on a travel insurance policy on an airline website is a bad nudge. Thaler wants nudges to be used for good. He wants them used for setting up the game so that average people take decisions that work for them. For example, a positive nudge is the Save More Tomorrow programme (bit.ly/2hYxfGy) that allows people to promise to save more next 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.
Most of you who read this column are now investing in the right way, using a systematic investment plan (SIP). But did you know that your dull, boring SIP is the result of more than 10 years of regulatory change? Most of you have also discarded the low-return endowment plans and now purchase a pure term plan to look after your life insurance needs. But did you know that you got to the right solution not because of regulatory change but despite it. I’ve been mapping the Indian personal finance industry for over 15 years and the behaviour of two regulators in industries that both manage household money has been fascinating. We now have the data to show the impact of regulatory change in the mutual fund and the life insurance industries on firms, sellers and households. I will relate the story through four tables.