A very irate 70-year-old spoke to me sometime back about his bugbear with the inflation stories he was reading in the papers. The inflation numbers had just been announced and the papers had stories about the rising real return on deposits. The stories celebrated the fall of inflation leading to positive real returns. This means that an inflation number of 4% and a deposit rate of 6% gives a ‘real’ return of 2%, as against an inflation number of 8% and deposit rates of 6% giving a negative real return of 2%. People don’t understand that they are better off, said the stories and comments, they just see the lower nominal return and feel poorer even when they are not. “It’s not as if the price of milk or vegetables has come down,” the septuagenarian grumbled. He’s right. The bite of inflation is such that even when inflation numbers go down, it just means that prices are still rising, but not as fast as before. What the commentators forget is that inflation too has a compounding effect. If compound interest on savings makes our money grow faster, the compounding of inflation makes our money buy less and less. For a retired person sitting on a fixed pot of savings and living off its interest, falling rates of inflation also mean falling deposit rates and that means insufficient funds to live on.
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.
A guy I know wanted to retire when he was 25. He just didn’t have the money. If I get Rs1 crore, he said, then I’ll retire. Now, 30 years later, he’s still working and still not done with gathering the corpus he needs to retire. Anyway, he’s wiser and agrees that financial security and going to work need not be either/or. People can continue to work even if they are financially secure. But how much do we really need to save out of our incomes to know that we will hit retirement with enough to maintain our lifestyle for another 30 years? Every time I speak to a friend about buying a life cover, he tells me—the risk we have is not of dying too soon, but of living too long.
This is the new inflation target for the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), with a floor of 2% and a ceiling of 6%. Remember that one of the reasons for inflation, or a rise in the prices, is that governments borrow too much to fund expenses.
Have you been feeling low lately? Generally pessimistic and grumpy? I met a colleague in the lift bay and swapped stories. A fund manager drops by to meet me and we discuss how everybody feels much older than before. That the last 10 years feel like 20. Many conversations over the past few months lead me to think that the urban mass affluent Indian is not feeling too happy. It’s a big come down since the go-go days of 9% growth. No wonder that the Misery Index for India is the highest since 1991. Nomura Research has tweaked the classic Arthur Okun method of adding the unemployment and inflation rate (higher levels of both, the argument goes, would cause higher economic and social distress) to take the difference of the Index of Industrial Production growth and the Consumer Price Index to construct the Indian Misery Index. The swap was made necessary by poor employment data in India. The greater this difference, the higher is the misery index. With inflation persistently high and industrial production and jobs falling, no wonder the lines of worry are settling in. Add to this the sheer persistent deluge of bad news across all fronts—economic, political, social, moral—and the picture looks even worse.
As I breezily recommend an index fund to anybody who is risk averse and still wants “better” return than a bank deposit, I forget to take into account a slice of the reader and viewer segment which does not know the assumptions or the formulae behind this sweeping prediction of the future that I like to make: Indian equity will give an average return of about 15%, year-on-year (y-o-y), over the next 10-15 years. You’ve heard this statement over and over again so often that it almost seems like a basic rule. But it takes a vigilant reader of the paper to ask the obvious question: what is the basis of this statement and if past returns do not guarantee future returns, how can we predict what the markets will do in the next few years? Writes Anantha Padmanabhan from Bangalore: “Today the economy is booming, however, over the next 15-20 years is it feasible to have such a year-on-year growth of the Sensex (and thus the economy)? Historical data over the last 15 years is fine, but going forward I am a little sceptical. What makes us say that the markets will give a 15% year-on-year return over the next 20 years?”