The BSE Sensex, India’s premier stock market index, crossed 50,000 points today in intra day trading. It has risen by more than 80% from around the end of March, when it had fallen to 27,591 points, in the aftermath of the covid pandemic hitting India.
This astonishing rise has now got the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) worried. The RBI Governor Shaktikanta Das, writing in the foreword to the latest Financial Stability Report, pointed out:
“The disconnect between certain segments of financial markets and the real economy has been accentuating in recent times, both globally and in India.”
People who run central banks are not always known to talk in simple English. Das is only following tradition here. The statement basically refers to stock prices. Das feels they have risen too fast in the recent past and have become disconnected from the overall economy.
While the overall Indian economy is expected to contract this year, the stock market has rallied by more than 80%. How is this possible? Or as you often get to hear these days, if the economy is doing badly, why is the stock market doing so well.
Theoretically, a possible explanation is that the stock market discounts the future and the stock market investors think that the future of the Indian economy is bright. Another explanation offered often by the stock market investors is that corporate profits this year have been at never seen before levels.
But even after taking these reasons into account, the current high level is really not justified. As Das put it in his foreword: “Stretched valuations of financial assets pose risks to financial stability.” One way to figure out whether valuations are stretched is to look at the price to earnings ratio of the stocks that constitute the Sensex index.
In January 2021, the price to earnings ratio has been at around 34. This means that investors are ready to pay Rs 34 as price, for every rupee of earning of the companies that make up for the Sensex. Such a high level of the price to earnings ratio has never been seen before. Not even in late 2007 and early 2008, when stock prices rallied big time or the first half of 2000, when the dotcom bubble was on.
Clearly, stock prices are in extremely bubbly territory. The current jump in corporate earnings isn’t sustainable for the simple reason that corporates have pushed up earnings by cutting employee costs as well as raw material costs. This means the incomes of those dealing with corporates from employees to suppliers and contractors, have fallen.
This fall in income has limited the ability of these individuals to spend money. This will lead to lower private consumption in the months to come, which, in turn, will impact corporate revenues and eventually profits. A sustainable increase in profits can only happen when people keep buying things and corporate revenues keep going up.
This brings us back to the question as to why stock prices are going up, when the overall economy is not doing well. A part of the reason is the RBI, though the central bank, rather expectedly, glosses over this totally in the latest edition of the Financial Stability Report.
Since February 2020, the RBI has pumped in a massive amount of money into the financial system through various measures, some of which involve the printing of money. By flooding the financial system with money, or what central banks refer to as liquidity, the RBI has ensured that interest rates in general and bank deposits in particular, have fallen.
The idea here is threefold. A drop in interest rates allows the government to borrow at lower interest rates. This became necessary because thanks to the pandemic, the tax collections of the government have dropped during this financial year. Between April and November 2020, the gross tax revenue stood at Rs 10.26 lakh crore, a drop of 12.6% in comparison to the same period in 2019.
Secondly, lower interest rates ensured that the interest costs of corporates on their outstanding loans, came down. Also, the hope was that at lower interest rates, corporates will borrow and expand.
Thirdly, at lower interest rates, the hope always is that people will borrow and spend more, and all these factors will lead to a faster economic recovery.
But there is a flip side to all this as well. A fall in interest rates has got people looking for a higher return. This has led to many individuals buying stocks, in the hope of a higher return and thus driving up prices to astonishingly high levels.
This can be gauged from the fact that in 2020, the number of demat accounts, which are necessary to buy and sell stocks, went up by nearly a fourth to 4.86 crore accounts. One of the reasons for this is the rise of Robinhood investing in India. This term comes from the American stock brokerage firm Robinhood which offers free online trading in stocks. India has seen the rise of similar stock brokerages offering free trading.
What has added to this is the fact that many unemployed individuals have turned to stock trading to make a quick buck. All it needs is a smartphone, a cheap internet connection and a low-cost brokerage account.
Of course, this search for a higher return isn’t local, it’s global. Hence, foreign institutional investors have invested a whopping $31.6 billion in Indian stocks during this financial year, the highest ever. This stems from the fact that Western central banks, like the RBI, have printed a huge amount of money to drive down interest rates.
This has pushed more and more investors into buying stocks despite the fact that the global economy isn’t doing well either.
A slightly different version of this column appeared in the Deccan Herald on January 17, 2021. It was updated after the Sensex first crossed 50,000 points during intra day trading on January 21, 2021.
Dear Reader, before you start thinking that I have click-baited you one more time, let me assure you that’s not true. Your personal finances in 2021 will actually face a Chinese problem.
But before we go into this, let’s first understand a few aspects about the Chinese saving habit over the years. Let’s look at this pointwise.
1)As is well known, the Chinese physical infrastructure over the years was funded through massive domestic savings being invested in bank deposits. As Charles Goodhart and Manoj Pradhan write in The Great Demographic Reversal: “Interest rates were set well below the rate of growth and the rate of inflation. While the economy grew on average by around 10% over 1990–2010, the inflation-adjusted deposit rate over the same period averaged −3.3% (for a 1.4% average for the nominal deposit rate versus an average annual inflation rate of 4.75%).”
Hence, the rate of interest rate was lower than the prevailing rate of inflation, for a period of two decades. If one were to state this in a simple way, the low interest rates acted effectively as a tax on Chinese households.
2) This tax did not matter much because the savings were channelised into investments. This created economic growth and the average income of a Chinese kept going up, year on year. Hence, while the interest being earned on the accumulated wealth was low, the regular yearly income kept going up.
3)Low interest rates led to an interesting behaviour at the household level. As Goodhart and Pradhan point out, there was “a negative correlation between urban savings and the decline in real deposit rates.” “When banks fail to protect household savings, households tend to save more, not less, in order to achieve a ‘target’, whether that is for education or the purchase of a home.” Basically, given the negative real rate of interest on bank deposits, where inflation was higher than the interest rate, Chinese households saved more money in bank deposits in order to achieve their targeted savings. Options of investing in other avenues were extremely limited.
Now the question is how does all this apply to your personal finance in India in 2021. Allow me to explain pointwise.
1)Interest rates on bank fixed deposits have collapsed. The interest offered on fixed deposits of more than one year, currently stands at around 5.5% on an average. This when the rate of inflation as measured by the consumer price index in November 2020 stood at 6.93%. Hence, the real rate of interest is in negative territory. If after tax the rate of return on fixed deposits is taken into account, the gap gets even bigger.
2)The major reason for this collapse in interest rates has been a collapse in bank lending. Given that banks, on the whole, have barely given out fresh loans since March, they possibly couldn’t keep paying a high rate of interest on deposits. Hence, the crash in interest rates. But what has added to this is the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) policy of flooding the financial system with money, in order to drive down interest rates further. The excess money in the financial system, which the banks deposit with the RBI, stood at Rs 6.25 lakh crore as of December 31, 2020.
3) From the indications that the RBI has given, this excess liquidity in the financial system is likely to continue. The idea is to help ease the burden on current loans of corporates. In a year the tax collections have collapsed this also helps the government to borrow at extremely low interest rates. At the same time, the hope is at lower interest rates corporates will borrow and expand. But that is not happening. Data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy shows that announcements of new investment projects in terms of value fell by 88.3% during the period October to December 2020. Investment projects completed were down by 74%. So, the corporates aren’t in the mood to borrow and expand.
There are a couple of reasons for this. Many corporates continue to remain over-leveraged. Still others don’t have enough confidence in India’s economic future, irrespective of what they say in the public domain. As they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
4)What does all this have to do with personal finance? What happened in China is happening in India as well. The bank savings have gone up dramatically during 2020. Between March 27 and December 18, they were up by Rs 9.15 lakh crore. In comparison, the increase during similar periods in 2019 and 2018, had stood at Rs 4.35 lakh crore and Rs 3.90 lakh crore, respectively. Of course, all this increase in saving is not just because of low interest rates. Some of it is because of fewer opportunities to spend money in 2020. Some of it is because of the general uncertainty that prevails. Some of it is because of jobs losses and the fear of job losses. And some of it is because Indians, like the Chinese, are saving more, in order to achieve the savings target for the education of their children or their weddings, or for the purchase of a home.
5)This has repercussions. With people saving more and with banks being unable to lend that money, interest rates have come down. And people saving more in response to the lower interest rates, means extended lower interest rates. This is not good news for savers. It is also not good news for consumption. If people are saving more, they are clearly spending lesser. This is the paradox of thrift or saving. When an individual saves more, it makes sense for him or her at an individual level. When the society as a whole saves much more than it was, it hurts the economy simply because one man’s spending is another man’s income. Over a period of time, this leads to job losses, more paradox of thrift and further job losses.
At the risk of sounding very cliched, there is no free lunch in economics. The RBI’s policy of flooding the financial system with money in order to help the corporates and the government, is basically hurting individual savers, consumption and the overall economy. The savers are paying for this lunch. And unlike the corporates, the savers have no unified voice. The government, obviously, is the government.
While, there is no denying that with lending not happening bank deposit rates had to fall, but the RBI policy of driving them down further, is something that is hurting the economy.
6)So, where does that leave the Indian saver? Some individual savers are betting on the stock market. But the price to earnings ratio of the Nifty 50 index as of January 1, stood at 38.55, an all-time high level. If you have the heart to invest in stocks at such a level, best of luck to you. Some others are betting on bitcoin, which has given a return of more than 75% in dollar terms, in the last one month.
Also, unlike the Chinese, the prospects of an increase in the yearly income of an average Indian, over the next years, at best remain subdued. Hence, the humble Indian fixed depositor, who liked to fill it, shut it and forget about it, so that he could concentrate on many other issues that his or her life keeps throwing up, clearly has a problem in 2021.
To conclude, all of you who write to me asking for a safe way of investing so that you can earn a 10% yearly return, well, sorry to disappoint you, no such way exists. At least not in 2021. Of course, there are always Ponzi schemes to invest in, some fraudulent, and some not so fraudulent.
The choice is yours to make.
PS: Wishing all my readers a very Happy New Year. Hope 2021 is much better than 2020 was for each one of you.
The new monetary policy committee which met for the first time over the last two days has decided to keep the repo rate unmoved at 4%. Monetary policy committee is a committee which decides on the repo rate of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). Repo rate is the interest rate at which RBI lends to banks and is expected to set the broad direction for interest rates in the overall economy.
The RBI has been trying to drive down the interest rates in the economy since January 2019. In January 2019, the repo rate was at 6.5%. Since then it has been cut by 250 basis points and is now at 4%. One basis point is one hundredth of a percentage. This has had some impact in driving down fixed deposit interest rates of banks. Take a look at the following chart.
Source: ICICI Securities, October 3, 2020.
From the peak they achieved between March and June 2019, fixed deposit interest rates have fallen by 170 to 220 basis points. This in an environment where the inflation has been going up. In March 2019, inflation as measured by the consumer price index was at 2.9%. It had jumped slightly to 3.2% by June 2019. In August 2020, the latest data available for inflation as measured by the consumer price index, had jumped to 6.6%. Meanwhile, fixed deposit rates which were around 7-8%, are largely in the range of 4-6% now (of course, there are outliers to this).
Hence, inflation is greater than interest rates on fixed deposits, meaning the purchasing power of the money invested in fixed deposits is actually coming down.
In fact, interest rate on savings bank accounts, which in some cases was as high as 6-7%, has also come down. Take a look at the following chart.
Source: ICICI Securities, October 3, 2020.
Savings bank accounts now offer anywhere between 2.5-3%.
The fall in interest rates is not just because of the RBI cutting the repo rate. A bulk of this fall has happened post the covid breakout. Banks haven’t lent money post covid.
Between March 27 and September 25, the outstanding non-food credit of banks has fallen by 1.1% or Rs 1.1 lakh crore to Rs 102 lakh crore. This means that people and firms have been repaying their loans and net-net in the first six months of this financial year, banks haven’t given a single rupee of a fresh loan.
Banks give loans to Food Corporation of India and other state procurement agencies to buy rice and wheat directly from the farmers. Once these loans are subtracted from overall lending by banks, what remains is non-food credit.
During the same period, the deposits of banks have risen by 5.1% or Rs 6.97 lakh crore to Rs 142.6 lakh crore. With people saving more, it clearly shows that the psychology of a recession is in place.
Banks have not been lending while their deposit base has been expanding at a rapid pace. The point being that banks are able to pay an interest on their deposits because they give out loans and charge a higher rate of interest on the loans than they pay on their deposits.
When this mechanism breaks down to some extent, as it has currently, banks need to cut interest rates on their deposits, given that they are not earning much on the newer deposits. This is bound to happen and accordingly, interest rates on fixed deposits have fallen.
While the supply of deposits has gone up, the demand for them in the form of loans, hasn’t. This has led to the price of deposits, which is the interest paid on them, falling.
But there is one more reason why interest rates have fallen. There is excess money floating around in the financial system. The RBI has printed money and pumped it into the financial system by buying bonds from financial institutions.
This excess money has also helped in driving down interest rates. While banks haven’t been able to lend at all in the first six months of the year, the government borrowing has gone through the roof. As the debt manager of the government, the RBI has printed and pumped money into the financial system to drive down the returns on government bond, in the process allowing the government to borrow at lower interest rates. Take a look at the following chart, which plots the returns (or yields) on 10-year bonds of the Indian government.
The yield on a government bond is the return an investor can earn if he continues to own the bond until maturity. The above chart clearly shows that as the government has borrowed more and more through the year, the interest rate at which it has been able to borrow money has come down, thanks to the RBI and its money printing.
Of course, with banks not lending on the whole, they are happy lending to the government. In fact, in his speech today, the RBI governor Shaktikanta Das said that the central bank planned to print and pump another Rs 1 lakh crore into the financial system in the days to come.
With more money expected to enter the financial system the 10-year government bond yield fell from 6.02% yesterday (October 8) to 5.94% today (October 9), a fall of 8 basis points during the course of the day.
The monetary policy committee also decided to keep the “accommodative stance as long as necessary”, with only one member opposing it. In simple English this means that the RBI will keep driving down interest rates as long as necessary “at least during the current financial year and into the next financial year – to revive growth on a durable basis and mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on the economy.”
The assumption here is that as interest rates fall people will borrow and spend more and corporations will borrow and expand more. This will help the economy grow, jobs will be created and incomes will grow. While, this sounds good in theory, it doesn’t really play out exactly like that, at least not in an Indian context.
Let’s take a look at this pointwise.
1)A bulk of deposits in Indian banks are deposited by individuals. In 2017-18, the latest data for which a breakdown is available, individuals held around 55% of deposits in banks by value. This had stood at 45% in 2009-10 and has been constantly rising. Hence, it is safe to say that in 2020-21, the proportion of bank deposits held by individuals will clearly be more than 55%.
When interest rates on deposits (both savings and fixed deposits) go down individuals get hurt the most. There are senior citizens whose regular expenditure is met through interest on these deposits. When a deposit paying 8% matures and has to be reinvested at 5.5%, it creates a problem. Either the family has to cut down on consumption or start spending some of their capital (the money invested in the fixed deposit).
This also disturbs many people who use fixed deposits as a form of long-term saving. The vagaries of the stock market are not meant for everyone. Also, in the last decade returns from investing in stocks haven’t really been great.
2)When interest rates go down, the families referred to above cut down on consumption and do not increase it, as is expected with lower interest rates. This may not sound right to many people who are just used to economists, analysts, bureaucrats, corporates and fund managers, mouthing, lower interest rates leading to an increase in consumption all the time. But there is a significant section of people whose consumption does get hurt by lower interest rates.
3)It’s not just about bank interest rates going down. Returns on provident fund/pension funds which hold government bonds for long time periods until maturity and post office schemes (despite being higher than banks), also come down in the process.
4) Also, no corporate is going to invest just because interest rates are low right now. Corporates invest and expand when they see a future consumption potential. This is currently missing. Also, banks lending to industry peaked at 22.43% of the GDP in 2012-13. It fell to 14.28% of the GDP in 2019-20. During the period, interest rates have gone up and down, but corporate lending as a proportion of the GDP has continued to fall. So clearly increased borrowing by corporates is not just about interest rates.
But corporates love to constantly talk about high interest rates as a reason not to invest. This is just a way of driving down interest on their current debt.
“Sowing disorder by confusing issues is a tried-and-trusted, distressingly often successful routine by which stakeholders, official and private, plant the seeds of policy/regulation reversal in India.”
One can understand interest rates going down in an environment like the current one, but there is a flip side to it as well, which one doesn’t hear the experts talk about at all. Also, anyone has barely mentioned the excess liquidity in the financial system, which currently stands at Rs 3.9 lakh crore. Why is that? Let’s look at this pointwise.
1) The equity fund managers love it because with interest rates going down further, many investors will end up investing money in stocks despite very high price to earnings ratio that currently prevails. The price to earnings ratio of the Nifty 50 index currently is at 34.7. This is a kind of level that has never been seen before.
But with post tax real returns from fixed deposits (after adjusting for inflation) in negative territory, many investors continue to bet on stocks, despite the lack of earnings growth.
2)The debt fund managers love it because interest rates and bond prices are negatively related. When interest rates come down, bond yields come down and this leads to bond prices going up. This means that the debt funds managed by these fund managers see capital gains and their overall returns go up. Hence, debt fund managers love lower interest rates.
3)Banks invest a large proportion of the deposits they gather into government bonds. When bond yields fall, bond prices go up. This leads to a higher profit for banks. This in an environment where banks aren’t lending. Hence, bankers love lower interest rates.
4)Corporates love lower interest rates at all points of time, irrespective of whether they want to borrow or not. I don’t think this needs to be explained.
5)The government loves low interest rates because it can borrow at lower rates. Second, with the stock market going up, it can sell a positive narrative. If the economy is doing so badly, why is the stock market doing well?
6)This leaves economists. Economists love lower interest rates because the textbooks they read, said so.
The question is do lower interest rates or interest rates make a difference when it comes to borrowing by an average Indian? Let’s take a look at non-housing retail borrowing from banks over the years. In 2007-08 it stood at 5.34% of the gross domestic product (GDP). In 2019-2020, it stood at an all-time high of 5.97% of GDP.
In a period of 12 years, non-housing retail borrowing from banks, has barely moved. What it tells us to some extent is that the idea of taking on a loan to buy something (other than a house), is still alien to many Indians.
So, the idea that interest rates falling leading to increased retail borrowing is a little shaky in the Indian context.
To conclude, today the RBI governor Shaktikanta Das gave a speech which was more than 4,000 words long. In this speech, the phrase fixed deposit interest rate did not appear even once.
A whole generation of savers is getting screwed (for the lack of a better word) and the RBI Governor doesn’t even bother mentioning it in his speech. The RBI seems to be constantly worried about the interest rate at which the government borrows.
A central bank which only bats for the government, corporates and bond market investors, is always and anywhere a bad idea.
Shaktikanta Das’ RBI is at the top of this bad idea.
Summary: There is no real way of earning a regular and a safe income that is enough to meet the monthly expenses.
The headline was a clickbait. But now that I have your attention, let me explain the logic behind it.
The title song of the 1979 Hindi film Gol Maal was written by the lyricist Gulzar (Honestly, calling him just a lyricist is doing his talent a great disservice. Other than being a lyricist, he has written screenplays and dialogues for a huge number of Hindi films. He is a poet and a short story writer. He is also a translator of repute. Oh, and he has also directed a whole host of Hindi movies as well as a few TV serials along the way. Also, for the millennials, Hrishikesh Mukherjee made Gol Maal, much before Rohit Shetty started using the title for everything he could possibly think of).
Now getting back to the point I was trying to make. In the title song of Gol Maal there is a line which goes: “paisa kamane ke liye bhi paisa chahiye,” essentially meaning, in order to earn money, you first need money. And that is what I am going to write about today.
In the twenty months, as the economy has gone downhill, people have been getting in touch with me on email and the social media, with a very basic financial query. The numbers were small first but post-covid this has turned into a deluge. The question being asked is how a reasonable monthly income can be generated from savings, without taking any risk, in a safe way.
The answer to this question has become very important as people have lost their jobs or seen their salaries being slashed and incomes falling. What does not help is the fact that the post-tax return from bank fixed deposits are now largely in the range of 4-5%. The inflation as measured by the consumer price index is close to 7%.
Before I try answering this question, it is important to understand why interest rates on bank fixed deposits have fallen. The simple answer to this lies in the fact that there is too much money floating around in the financial system, with the banks not knowing possibly what to do with it.
Between March 27 and July 31, a period of little over four months, the non-food credit given by banks has contracted by Rs 1.32 lakh crore or around 1.3%. The banks give loans to the Food Corporation of India (FCI) and other state procurement agencies to primarily buy rice and wheat directly from the farmers at the minimum support price declared by the government. Once these loans are deducted from the overall loans given by banks, what remains is non-food credit.
What does non-food credit contracting tells us? It tells us on the whole borrowers have been repaying loans and at the same time not taking on enough new loans. It also tells us that banks are reluctant to lend. Further, as we shall see, there has been a huge surge in fixed deposits with banks, as people have increased their savings in the aftermath of the spread of the covid-19 pandemic. Banks will take time to lend all this money out.
Between March 27 and July 31, the total deposits of banks have gone up by Rs 5.95 lakh crore or 4.4%. In an environment, where the non-food credit of banks has contracted whereas deposits have jumped big-time, it is but natural that interest rates on fixed deposits have fallen. In fact, the weighted average term deposit interest rate or simply put average fixed deposit interest rate has fallen from 6.45% in February to 6% in June, the latest data available. Now that we are in August, the interest rates may have possibly fallen even more.
In fact, there is nothing new about interest rates on fixed deposits falling, this has been going on for close to eight years now. Having said that, interest rates shouldn’t be looked at in isolation, it is important to compare them with the prevailing rate of inflation. Take a look at the following chart. It plots the average interest rate on fixed deposits during the course of a year, along with inflation as measured by the consumer price index. The difference between the two is referred to as the real rate of return on fixed deposits.
Interest v/s Inflation
Source: Reserve Bank of India.
What does the above chart tell us? Between 2014-15 and 2018-19, there was a healthy difference between the average interest paid on fixed deposits and inflation. (Of course, this is without taking tax on fixed deposit interest into account, else, the difference would have been lower).
These were the years when first Dr Raghuram Rajan and then Dr Urjit Patel were at the helm at the Reserve Bank of India. In 2019-20, the real return on fixed deposits narrowed to 1.6%. Shaktikanta Das took over as RBI Governor in December 2018.
Let’s take a look at the real return on fixed deposits month wise since December 2018, the month when Das took over as RBI Governor. The real return on fixed deposits as explained earlier is the average interest rate on fixed deposits minus the prevailing rate of inflation.
Crash in real returns
Source: Author calculations on data from the Reserve Bank of India.
This chart is as clear as anything can get. The real rate of return on fixed deposits has simply collapsed since end of 2018. This has happened as the interest rate on fixed deposits has fallen and inflation has gone up.
The interest rate on fixed deposits has fallen primarily because the rate of loan growth for banks has crashed over this period. This we can see from the following chart.
Loan growth crash
Source: Reserve Bank of India.
The above chart clearly tells us that the loan growth of banks has crashed since December 2018. In fact, for the week ended July 31, it stood at just 5.4%. Given this, the Indian economy was slowing down even before covid-19 pandemic struck.
Hence, as economic growth has slowed down, the loan growth of banks has slowed down and this has led to fixed deposit interest rates coming down as well. The point being that in economics everything is linked.
Of course, there is more to this than just the economy slowing down. Since February, like the rest of the central banks, the RBI has printed and pumped money into the financial system to drive down interest rates, in the hope of getting businesses and people to borrow more.
Also, with collapse in tax revenues, the government will have to borrow more this year, in order to keep its expenditure going. Hence, it likes the idea of borrowing more at lower interest rates. The RBI goes along with this because among other things it also acts as the debt manager of the government.
The problem is that India’s economic crisis has grown worse since the covid pandemic hit the world, leading to a lot of individuals losing their jobs or facing salary cuts. Small businesses have been majorly hit and incomes have come down dramatically.
In this environment, people are now looking to generate some sort of a regular income from their savings. Of course, most them want to do this in a risk free way. As one gentleman recently asked me: “I am currently not employed after having worked in the corporate sector for 10 years. My request to you is to honestly guide me on how and where to invest to earn steady income especially when the fixed deposit interest rates have fallen so low.”
The first thing I can clearly say is that the gentleman believes that there is a solution to his problem. He believes that it is possible to generate a good steady income despite fixed deposit interest rates having fallen.
I see this belief among many people. My guess is, it stems from the fact that way too many personal finance publications believe in offering solutions to everything. I mean, why will a reader read you, if at the end of it you say something like there aren’t really any solutions to this problem that you might have. At least, that’s how their thinking operates. Also, they need advertisers. And advertisers love solutions to everything, even when none really exist.
In June 2020, the average rate of interest on a fixed deposit was 6%. Once we take income tax into account, the rate of return would be much lower. Of course, there are banks out there which are offering a rate of interest of 7% or more. Nevertheless, these banks are perceived to be among the riskier ones. So, the question is are you willing to take on more risk, for a 1-1.5% higher return? If yes, then these investments are for you.
While, we live in an era where no bank is going to go bust, they can and have been put under a moratorium or periods under which only a limited amount of money can be withdrawn from them. And money that can’t be spent when it is needed, is essentially useless. Hence, if you do end up putting money in a bank which offers a 1-1.5% higher return, do remember not to put all your money into it.
There are corporate fixed deposits which offer a slightly higher return but again they don’t have the same safety as a bank does.
If you are senior citizen, you can look at the Senior Citizens Savings Scheme. But that comes with the pain of dealing with the post office.
Debt mutual funds as many people have found out over the last one year, come with their own share of risks. They were marketed to be as safe as fixed deposits, but they weren’t anywhere close. Also, irrespective of what financial planners and wealth managers might say, debt mutual funds are fairly complicated products, which I am sure most people selling them don’t understand. And that’s why they are able to sell them in the first place.
A lot of individuals in the last few months have turned towards investing in stocks. The logic is that the stock market has rallied from its March low. On March 23, the BSE Sensex, India’s premier stock market index was at 25,981 points. Yesterday, August 26, it closed at 39,074 points, a jump of over 50% in a period of a little over five months. This rally has been driven by a few stocks and if you had invested in the right stocks, you would have ended up with good gains by now.
While, one can’t question this logic, but what one needs to remember is that on January 12, the Sensex was at 41,965 points. From there to March 23, it fell by 38% in a little over two months. The point being the stock market can fall as fast or even faster than it can rise. Also, do remember this basic point that a 50% fall can wipe off a 100% gain. (A 38% fall would have written off a 61% gain).
Hence, the larger point here as I mentioned in this piece I wrote a few days back is, just because an investor takes a higher risk by investing in stocks, it doesn’t mean he will always end up with higher returns, precisely the reason the word ‘risk’ is used in the first place. And by the way, the 10-year return on stocks (including dividends) is less than 9% per year.
So, the question is what should a person looking for a regular and safe income, actually do? As helpless as it might sound, there aren’t many options going around beyond the humble fixed deposit, especially for people who aren’t senior citizens. The trouble is the fixed deposit interest rates are at very low levels.
If you need to generate a monthly income of Rs 20,000 at 6% per year, this needs an investment of Rs 40 lakh.
The moral of the story here being that if you want to generate a regular safe income which is enough to meet your monthly needs, you need to invest more money. Or as Gulzar wrote in Gol Maal: “paisa kamane ke liye bhi paisa chahiye.” I would like to call this the Gulzar principle of investing for a regular income and safe returns.
Also, there are corollaries to this. These are very difficult times. Hence, there is a good chance of individuals ending up in a situation where they might have to spend their savings (rather than just the return on savings) to keep meeting expenditure.
Let’s take the example of a middle-class household with monthly expenses of Rs 50,000. In order to generate this income through a fixed deposit, an investment of Rs 1 crore is needed. Of course, the chances of a middle-class household with expenses of Rs 50,000 per month having savings of a crore, are rather minimal. In this scenario, they will have to resort to spending their savings. Given this, as I keep saying, the return of capital is much more important now than the return on capital.
In the short run, the only way to generate a good regular and safe income is find a job or any other source of income by selling the skills that one has (Like I write. I can do that for a media house or do it individually). In the long run, the next time you see interest rates of 8-9% available on fixed deposits or any other safe investment, invest in these assets and lock in the high returns for as long as possible.
While, this might not sound much like a solution but that is the long and the short of it.
Summary: Just because you have taken on a risk by investing in stocks, doesn’t mean high returns are going to materialise.
The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable – John Kenneth Galbraith.
It was sometime in October-November 2010. I had just joined a weekly personal finance newspaper, which for reasons I did not understand and for reasons above my paygrade, was to be run out of Delhi.
During the course of one editorial meeting, we had to decide what sort of return would systematic investment plans (SIPs) into equity mutual funds generate over the next decade. This was necessary as a part of a regular feature to be published in the newspaper, which would help a featured family come up with an investment-savings plan.
It was assumed that SIPs into equity mutual funds would generate 15% per year return. I protested against the assumption saying that 15% per year return was way too high but was overruled by the Delhi bosses.
At that point of time it had almost become fashionable to say that the stock market generates 15% return per year in the long term (In fact, there are people who still believe in this myth, which I shall write about in detail in the time to come).
Getting back to the point. We are now in 2020. 10 years have gone by. As I pointed out in a piece yesterday, the SIP returns on index funds have been rather subdued over the last decade. The average per year return over the last decade in case of the three Nifty index funds I checked was slightly over 9% (around 9.17% to be very precise). Index funds are funds which have a mandate to invest money in stocks that make up a stock market index, in the same proportion that they do.
The per year return of a little over 9% was nowhere near the assumed 15% per year return. Let’s say an individual had invested Rs 10,000 per month religiously through the SIP route for ten years. On this if he had earned a return of 15% per year, the value of his portfolio at the end of 10 years would be Rs 27.5 lakh.
If the return was 9.2% instead as it actually turned out to be, the value would be around Rs 19.6 lakh or around 29% lower. If the individual was saving towards a certain goal, he would end up way short. But that’s the rather obvious point here.
The question is how did the market narrative of stocks giving 15% return in the long-term come about? The first time I heard this 15% argument being made with a lot of confidence by marketmen was sometime in late 2006 or perhaps early 2007.
This, after the Indian economy had grown by greater than 9% in real terms for three consecutive years, 2004 to 2006. The zeitgeist or the spirit of the times that prevailed was that come what may India will now grow by at least 8% in real terms. Add an inflation of 5-6% on top of that and we will grow at 13-14% in nominal terms, year on year.
Assuming that the earnings of companies which are a part of India’s premier stock market indices would grow a tad faster than the nominal growth, we arrived at 15-16% year on year growth in earnings.
This would be reflected in stock prices growing by 15-16% per year as well. From here came the assumption, the stock market growing at 15% in the long-term. There is a lot more to this assumption including Sensex returns from 1979 on, but I will leave that for another day. For the time being knowing this much is fine.
In fact, over the years, I have seen this logic being offered by people who make their money in the stock market by managing other people’s money or OPM or even better OPIUM, with great conviction. These tend to include fund managers, analysts, traders, salespeople etc. (Oh, if you still didn’t get it, OPM and OPIUM sound the same. Rather childish, but good fun nonetheless). Those in the business of managing OPIUM really believe that stocks give 15% per year return over the long-term (I even wrote a piece on this titled Why Economic Growth Cannot Be Created on an Excel Sheet. You can read it here).
The trouble is that this assumption has turned out to be all wrong. The earnings growth has been nowhere near what the OPIUM managers have been projecting. This is reflected in the 10-year return on stocks, which as of August 20, 2020, stood at 8.7% per year (based on the Nifty 50 Total Return Index, which takes dividends paid by companies into account as well, unlike the normal index).
The funny thing is that the stock market has delivered a return of just 8.7% per year over the last decade, despite the valuations being at all time high levels. The price to earnings ratio of stocks that comprise the Nifty 50 index is around 32 these days. This basically means that for every rupee of earnings for these stocks, the investors are ready to pay thirty-two rupees as price. As I pointed out yesterday, such high valuation has never been seen before.
And despite such a high valuation the decadal per year return on stocks on an average is less than 9% per year. This is the irony of it all. It also makes me wonder why investors think that the stock market is doing well. Yes, it has done well in comparison to where it was in late March 2020, but clearly not otherwise.
Of course, when the OPIUM managers talk about 15-16% return per year from stocks over the long-term, they also highlight the fact that for higher return a higher risk needs to be taken on by the investor. The higher risk is the risk of investing in stocks for the long-term.
But what they don’t talk about is the fact that just because you are taking the risk of investing in stocks for the long-term, doesn’t mean that higher returns are going to materialise. I would like to call this, the risk of risk of investing in stocks, something which most OPIUM managers don’t seem to talk about.
The question is why does this happen? The answer lies in the fact that OPIUM managers are in the business of driving up assets under management for the firms that they work for. More the money that gets invested in a fund, the higher the fee earned by the firm to manage that money. And in this business of soliciting money, you need to sound confident.
The moment you start getting into nuance about high risk not guaranteeing high returns, you start losing the average prospective investor. Hence, the projection of confidence that the prospective investor is looking out for, leads to simplistic one-line market narratives like stocks will definitely give a 15% per year return, over a decade. Such narratives are easier to sell.
In a world full of complex uncertainties, the prospective investors are looking for certainty and those in the business of managing OPIUM can’t consistently project confidence to tackle the complex uncertainties, unless they believe in stocks giving 15% per year return in the long-term, themselves. This is the con of confidence which fools people on both sides.
The trouble is such narratives hurt. As economists John Kay and Mervyn King write in Radical Uncertainty – Decision Making For an Unknowable Future: “Markets narratives are occasionally ‘dishonest and manipulative’, but normal people make honest use of narratives to understand their environment and guide decisions under radical uncertainty.” (King and Kay’s book is a terrific read though not a breezy one. Highly recommended).
This is not to say that one should not invest in stocks and invest all our money in bank fixed deposits. Not at all.
All I am trying to say is that just because you have taken on the risk of investing in stocks, doesn’t mean higher returns are going to materialise and which is why it’s called risk in the first place. So, you might end up short on the corpus you were trying to build (assuming you are trying to do this in a systematic way).This is something that needs to be kept in mind while investing in stocks either directly or indirectly through mutual funds. This is the risk of risk of investing in stocks. While all mutual fund ads have a disclaimer at the end saying that mutual fund investments are subject to market risk, nobody really explains to the investor what exactly this market risk is.
The economist Allison Schrager makes this point in the context of saving for retirement in her brilliant book An Economist Walks into a Brothel—And Other Unexpected Places to Understand Risk. The conventional wisdom is that when it comes to saving for retirement it makes immense sense to build up as large a retirement corpus as possible and then spend it at the rate of, say 4%, per year, after retirement.
The problem with this strategy is that 4% per year isn’t really a fixed amount. It depends on the retirement corpus one has been able to build up in the first place. And that in turn depends on how the stock market has been doing. As Schrager writes: “That’s where the strategy goes wrong.”
One way of getting around this problem is that in the years approaching retirement you take your money out of stocks and invest it in fixed income investments, everything from bonds to fixed deposits. This mitigates the risk to some extent but not totally.
What if the stock market is not doing well in the years before retirement? What do you do then? Do you continue staying invested in the stock market in the hope that it recovers, and you build a better corpus? What if it doesn’t?
That’s the risk of it all. At the cost of repeating just because you have invested in stocks and taken on a higher risk doesn’t mean higher returns are automatically going to materialise.
To conclude, it is important that as a stock market investor you realise this, irrespective of whether the OPIUM managers communicate this or not.
Stay safe and enjoy the weekend.
Will see you now on Monday (or perhaps Tuesday, depending on what my brain throws up over the weekend).
Disclaimer: This article is meant for educational purposes only.