Starting soon your mutual fund will cost less. The capital market regulator, the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi), has put out rules that further tighten the mutual fund industry norms to take care of the loopholes found and misused by the industry. You can read the circular here. There are four changes that impact you.
One, for costs related to the scheme, mutual funds will now pay only out of the scheme account and not from any other source or account. What was happening was this: some of the bigger fund houses were using their profits to pay commissions to distributors to kick up sales. Remember that after a certain scale, it does not cost much more to run a fund house; so as the fund size grows, costs should actually come down.
The capital market regulator, the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi), has once more moved in investor interest in the mutual fund industry. The mutual fund you buy will soon cost less, be less prone to mis-selling and be more transparent. These are the four changes that will make an already investor friendly product go several steps ahead.
One, Sebi has lowered the costs in a mutual fund. An expense ratio in a mutual fund is the cost that the investor pays. The regulator fixes the maximum a fund can charge and leaves it to competition to drive costs down. Levied on the assets under management (AUM), these costs were fixed in 1996 when the industry size was around ₹30,000 crore. Costs in a mutual fund were expected to come down as the size grew because fixed costs do not grow with the size of the AUM. The benefits of larger size, it was assumed, would be passed on to the investor. The industry size is now ₹25 trillion but the costs in the retail part of the market have stayed near the maximum limits; in the institutional part (liquid funds and debt funds), costs have been slashed due to the higher bargaining power of the big customers. Retail customers have no organised voice and continued paying more even as the size of the industry indicated a cost cut. Sebi has now cut the maximum a fund can charge and costs over the board will come down.
The HDFC Asset Management Co. Ltd stock closed 65% up on the first day of listing over its IPO price of ₹1,100 per share. Investors who sold on day one, saw ₹10,000 investment turn to about ₹16,500 over a 10-day period. HDFC AMC’s business is to offer its investment management service to investors—both retail and institutional. It’s performance track record as an asset manager is mixed. For example, investors into the best equity scheme over a one year period—HDFC Small Cap Direct Plan—have seen a one-year return of almost 22%. The worst equity scheme from HDFC AMC, HDFC Infrastructure fund, lost 11% in the same year. Look further back, the worst equity fund is still HDFC’s Infra fund, with an average annual return of about 8% over 10 years. The best equity fund, HDFC Mid-cap Opportunities, has given a huge 20% average annual return over 10 years. As asset managers begin to list on the stock market, HDFC is the second AMC to list, the first being Reliance Nippon Life Asset Management Ltd that listed in November 2017, the question investors are asking is this: should you invest in the schemes of a fund or in the stock of the fund itself?
Rahul Dravid filed a police complaint recently accusing an investment firm of cheating him. He invested Rs20 crore in a firm promising a 40% return. He recovered Rs16 crore but is yet to get back the remaining Rs4 crore. Instead of trusting a sharp shooter for higher returns, had Rahul Dravid invested his Rs20 crore in mutual funds, what would his portfolio look like today? The average large-cap 3-year return is 7.31% and the average 5-year return is 14.47%. His Rs20 crore invested 3 years ago would today be worth Rs25 crore and had he invested 5 years ago, he would be sitting on a corpus of Rs39 crore. That is if he got just average returns and not top quartile returns. But he is looking to just recover his principal from the sharp shooter who promised him super returns. Dravid would have been better off in funds than with a ponzi scheme that he trusted in search of more.
Mutual funds have done well and have been in the news for mostly good reasons in the past few years. The number of retail investors is growing, the systematic investment plan (SIP) book is now at Rs6,500 crore a month and long-term investors have seen stability in their money growth. When seen in the context of large banking scams or the loot of investor money due to misselling of life insurance products, or the periodic ponzi schemes that loot not just the rich and the famous, the fund industry looks good.
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.