“Today there is a major aspirational class in India that wants to invest for growth….According to the Association of Mutual Funds, the assets under management of the mutual fund industry in India in 2014 were around 10 lakh crores. In these eight years, by June 2022, it has increased by 250 percent to 35 lakh crore. That is, people want to invest. They are ready for it”. This is Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaking at the inauguration of the International Bullion Exchange in GIFT City, Gandhinagar on July 29, 2022. These are not words that India has ever seen coming from the political leadership. To the contrary there has been a deep-seated suspicion of markets in general and stock markets in particular. This discomfort with markets has led to decades of sub-optimal investment options for Indians wanting to keep savings ahead of inflation.
The decision of India’s Employees’ Provident Fund Organization (EPFO) board to split its payout for 2019-20 into two parts—8.15% from its bond investments right now and 0.35% from its equity investments later this year—was unprecedented alright. But it was no big surprise, given the poor performance of its stock portfolio. Provident fund (PF) subscribers should not fret too much. Even if they must content themselves with just the main tranche, a rate of 8.15% is superior to anything a bank deposit could have offered in these times of low interest rates. In fact, some economists have argued that PF account holders are rewarded far too handsomely, distorting credit markets by getting in the way of efforts by the central bank to cheapen loans. It is an argument that holds some weight, and so the state-run manager of our retirement kitty has been generous. Fund management is not about generosity, however, and its deferral of the equity slice of its annual payout is yet another sign that it is woefully out of step with the times.
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.
A tweet from @TheMFGuy started the debate on social media a few weeks back. The tweet read: “Like wallets @SEBI_India should now make rules for mutual fund portability allowing to switch from one fund house to another.” Portability in a service is the option to move your business to another service provider without losing the identification number (as in a telephone number), or losing the history your account has built up (as in a medical insurance policy where a no-claims-bonus builds up for every claim-free year) or having a tax implication when an investment is switched rather than redeemed.
What does portability in a mutual fund mean? There are four kinds of portability that we need to understand in a mutual fund. First, between asset classes, for example, between stocks and bonds. Second, between schemes, for example, from the large-cap to a multi-cap fund of the same fund house. Third, between fund houses, for example, from the mid-cap fund of one fund house to the mid-cap fund of another fund house. Fourth, between various options in a scheme—for example, switching between growth and dividend or between regular and direct.
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.
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.
RRR exit, hmmm. Brexit, meh. Shrugging off plenty of bad news, the Sensex hit an 11-month high this week. What’s going on? The story for India is the thickening of the retail equity pipeline, not directly in stocks, but through institutions such as pension funds and mutual funds. Sustained flows of retail money is coming in. And it is coming in a staggered manner. Indian household money has traditionally been in real assets such as gold and real estate, in bank fixed deposits (FDs) and to some extent in life insurance policies. The organised sector contributed to their provident fund, which again went into bonds and other fixed return paper. Think about the change in our own investing behaviour—we swore by FDs and Life Insurance Corporation of India policies, but are now die-hard SIPpers (investors into systematic investment plans of mutual funds). What changed?
Finance minister Arun Jaitley announced in the Lok Sabha on Tuesday that he will roll back the tax on salaried Middle India’s one true friend—the Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF). The Budget had proposed to tax 60% of the EPF corpus on retirement, leaving 40% tax-free. But if the 60% was invested in an annuity, it would remain tax-free; the tax will be paid on the income the annuity generates. The National Pension System (NPS) has retained tax-free status for 40% of its corpus. You can take 60% of your NPS corpus as a lump sum at age 60 and 40% must go to buy an annuity. Of the total NPS corpus, 40% will now be tax-free and you will pay slab rate tax on 20% of the corpus. If your NPS corpus is Rs.100, then your tax is on Rs.20. The annuity income is taxed at slab rate.
The controversy around Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) began two weeks back, and not on Monday, when it was announced that the withdrawal rules will change. With effect from 10 February, a labour ministry amendment has capped what you can withdraw from your EPF corpus before you retire. Before 10 February, you could have withdrawn your entire EPF corpus if unemployed for more than two months. Before EPF portability, each time you moved jobs and got a new EPF number, you could clean out your PF money from the previous employer. The new rules allow you to withdraw your contribution and the interest on it before retirement, but the employer’s contribution is locked in till age 58. On Saturday last week, I accidently stepped into an ongoing conversation about the change in EPF rules on Twitter. Read the debate on my twitter handle @monikahalan on 28 February 2016 around this. People were angry at getting locked into the product and wanted greater flexibility.