Insurance has been the buzz word ever since the COVID-19 pandemic. In the special show ‘Smart Money’, CNBC-TV18’s Sonia Shenoy spoke to Sumit Rai, MD and CEO at Edelweiss Tokio Life Insurance, and Monika Halan, Author of Let’s Talk Money, to understand what is the protection cover that one must have for one’s family. They also shared some hacks to buy life or health insurance.
The success of the Bharat Bond issue where PSU bonds were sold through an exchange-traded fund (ETFs are mutual funds that mimic an index and list on the stock exchange) and the use of ETFs earlier for equity disinvestment of public sector firms has rung alarm bells in the plush offices of the life insurance industry. To see how they are connected, we will have to use a wide-angle lens and watch from 30,000 feet. The story is about who gets to be the pipe that connects savings to investments, and shaves off a few basis points to a few percentage points of costs, as it does so. Households and firms generate savings, which becomes the raw material for firms for their investments, that they use to start a new business or expand an existing one. Firms will either borrow or sell their equity to get the funds. Banks, insurance firms, mutual funds and pension funds are the pipes that connect savers to users (both borrowers and equity sellers).
Banks don’t mis-sell financial products in India. That is the conclusion we can draw from the annual report of the Banking Ombudsman (BO) for the year July 2017 to June 2018, where a tiny 0.4% of the total complaints made to the Ombudsman were related to mis-selling. This means that 654 banking customers in India complained that they were mis-sold by their bank. Overall too, very few Indians have a complaint about their banks—of the 700 million plus Indians with bank accounts, just 0.02% complained at all. Remove the inactive and dormant accounts, but still the percentage of people complaining at all is under 1%. But did you know that India was probably the only country where there were no complaints against mis-selling before 2017-18. The Banking Ombudsman only entertains complaints that it has defined in the categories or grounds of complaints; so if there is no category, there is no complaint. In an inter-regulator meeting in 2016, Reserve Bank of India (RBI) officials proudly said that banks did not mis-sell—see no complaints. If you don’t admit such complaints, it does not mean there are none. The attitude of not wanting to find the problem defines the RBI and the BO approach to consumer complaints in general and mis-selling in particular.
The Infrastructure Leasing and Financial Services (IL&FS) contagion is spreading. After mutual funds and non-banking financial companies (NBFCs), it is the turn of the exempt pension funds to be worried about their investment in bonds from the beleaguered institution. The story is: as non-performing asset-laden banks dried up lending to firms, these companies turned to other sources of money as a firm needs working capital to keep the wheels of business turning. Money comes from two sources—extra funds that other firms have and household savings. Institutions such as banks, mutual funds, insurance firms, pension funds, and NBFCs act as intermediaries between households, who are the lenders, and firms who are borrowers. In the IL&FS case, there are bonds that have not kept to the interest payment schedule and were, thus, classified as below investment-grade by credit rating firms. Once that happened, the exposure to such bonds held by mutual funds came to light. Next came the exposure of NBFCs to these bonds.
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.
It always happens. An introduction to mutual funds results in a feeding frenzy. I’d introduced a childhood friend to mutual funds two years ago. At age 45, she had left money and its management too late, but once she on-boarded mutual funds, she really went all the way. And beyond. Two years later, I’m horrified to see her portfolio. From the three-scheme portfolio she had started out with two years ago, she now sits on some 10 mutual fund schemes without a thought on what problem they solved. From an FD Hugger, she turned into a Feeding Frenzy Funder. I find that investors I meet fall into some stereotypes. Here are eight investor types—who are you?
The Ostrich: You have no plan, your money lies in your savings deposit and you are known to proudly say that you have no money to invest. You push away all help that comes your way because you are convinced that the world is full of cheats and you are just safer not doing anything rather than making an error. Beneath the don’t care mask, you are actually quite petrified about the state of your finance. And maybe for that reason believe that “something” will happen to make that pot of gold that you are convinced will come your way. Dream on.
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.
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.
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.
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.