Monday, April 1, 2013

Can stocks help you retire rich?

Can stocks help you retire rich?
The insipid performance of equity-linked pension portfolios in the past five years has raised questions about the need to line one's retirement nest egg with stocks.
The insipid performance of equity-linked pension portfolios in the past five years has raised questions about the need to line one's retirement nest egg with stocks.

Chitra Gaur firmly believed that her NPS investmentswould outperform her husband's debt-based Provident Fund. "With 15% of the corpus invested in stocks, I was expecting a return of 9-10%," says the Delhi-based government school teacher (see picture).

However, despite the equity exposure and the fact that the markets were trading at very low levels throughout 2008-9, Chitra's NPS portfolio has given a return of 8.78% in the past five years, compared with the 8.62% return delivered by the Provident Fund during the same period. This calculation is based on the internal rate of return (IRR) of monthly contributions from April 2008 till March 2013 to the NPS fund for government employees managed by the UTI Retirement Solutions. Put simply, these are the SIP returns of the fund for the past five years.

Sitting in his office in a quiet part of bustling south Delhi, Pension Fund Regulatory and Development Authority (PFRDA) chairman Yogesh Agarwal is neither surprised, nor perturbed by these numbers. "There can't be a significant difference because the government allows only 15% of the corpus to be invested in equity," he says. The PFRDA wants the government employees to be allowed the same investment choices in the NPS as other investors. A private sector investor is allowed to define his asset allocation and can put up to 50% of his corpus in equity funds.

Will this help boost returns? We considered the SIP returns of NPS funds for general investors in the past four years and found that the equity funds have lagged debt funds. The calculation is based on the NAVs of the first reporting day of every month since June 2009. Aggressive investors, who allocated the maximum 50% to equity, have earned an average 7.3% (see table on next page), while balanced investors earned 8.3%.

Case of Chitra and Kuldeep Kaushik, Delhi
However, the biggest surprise was the return earned by ultra-cautious investors, who steadfastly stayed away from the stock market. They have earned an average 9.74%, with the best performing SBI Pension Fund delivering double-digit returns. The softening of interest rates and the drop in bond yields in the past two years has led to better returns for debt funds.

Should you invest in equity?

For investors the big question is: should they expose their retirement savings to a volatile asset class such as stocks? Won't it be prudent to stick to the safety of debt? Central PF Commissioner Anil Swarup certainly thinks so. "It is possible to earn good returns without compromising on safety. We can go for debt instruments that are not as secure as gilts but can give us better returns," he says.

Swarup points out that the Central Board of Trustees (CBT) of the EPFO has recently liberalised the investment norms for the Provident Fund. Till now, the organisation was allowed to invest in AAA rated PSU bonds for up to 15 years, but the CBT has now permitted investments in longer duration bonds of up to 25 years. It has also given the nod to investments in private sector bonds, provided that the issuer is a listed company with a net worth of at least Rs 3,000 crore and has generated profits, and paid a dividend of at least 15% for the past five years. Besides, the bonds should have been rated AAA by at least two rating agencies.

Swarup reckons that this liberal mandate could help the EPF earn 50-75 basis points higher returns through such investments. "The safety of the investment is not compromised, but by merely relaxing the duration and issuer guidelines we will be able to earn higher returns," he adds.

However, market experts scoff at this ultra-cautious approach. Their contention: a 100% debt portfolio will never be able to beat inflation. The EPFO is allowed to invest up to 15% in stocks, but has never done so. Even if 1% of the EPFO corpus is put in stocks, that's Rs 4,500 crore worth of fresh investment flowing into the market.

Now you know why the Finance Ministry, Sebi and other market participants want the EPFO to invest some of its gargantuan portfolio in stocks. Admittedly, the past five years have seen unprecedented volatility in the stock markets. Even seasoned investors have been caught on the wrong foot. The 2008 crash took the Nifty to a multi-year low level. This was followed by a sharp rebound in 2009-10 and sustained choppiness thereafter. At the same time, debt investments earned good returns when bond yields fell sharply from 9.5% in early 2008 to 5.25% by the end of that black swan year.

Financial planners insist that equity is a necessary ingredient of your retirement pie. "An investor needs to have a portion of his retirement corpus in equity, otherwise he might miss his pension target," says Sailesh Multani, head of financial planning at Edelweiss Financial Planning. He points out that many investors do not factor in inflation when they set their retirement targets. "A sum of Rs 1 crore may seem enough right now, but it won't be so 15-20 years later. Retirees should be counselled about the importance of inflation-adjusted returns," he says.

The best performing MIPs
How much is enough?

While this is correct, the problem lies in defining the 'portion' as a percentage of retirement savings. Every individual has a different risk profile and various investment options offer different levels of equity allocation. While the EPF has no equity exposure, the NPS funds for government employees put 15% in stocks and private NPS investors can invest up to 50% in this volatile class. If you have a unit-linked pension plan from a life insurance company, you can put up to 90% of your investments in equity.

There's also a rule of thumb that says one should have an equity exposure of 100 minus one's age. So, at 30, you should have about 70% of your portfolio in equity. At 55, the exposure to this volatile asset class should have been pared down to 45%. In fact, the NPS offers an auto choice where the investor's age decides the equity exposure. The 50% allocation to equity reduces every year by 2% after the investor turns 35, till it becomes 10% at the age of retirement. The returns for investors who have opted for auto rebalancing of their NPS investment may be slightly better than those earned by aggressive investors.

So, how much should you allocate to equity when saving for retirement? The portfolios of some of the top performing MIP mutual funds provide some answers. These schemes generally have 15-25% of their corpus invested in stocks. One scheme, the Birla Sun Life MIP II Savings 5, stands out in the crowd. Its equity exposure is capped at 10%, which limits the risk. In the past five years, the equity allocation has averaged 6.8% and currently stands at 8.6%.

In fact, during the bull run of 2007 and the mayhem of 2008, Birla Sun Life MIP II Savings 5 had no stocks in its portfolio. Even when the stock market was down by almost 50%, the fund did not change its mandate, but started nibbling at equity only when the dust had settled in early 2009. Yet, it has churned out a decent return for investors. At 8.7%, its SIP returns since April 2008 are marginally lower than those of the other top performing MIPs (see table).

It's instructive that the schemes with very high equity limits have not performed as well as those with lower ceilings. Clearly, higher returns don't necessarily require higher risks. Even a small 10-15% equity allocation is enough to help you reach your target. If you are investing in a 100% debt-oriented PF, you can supplement your retirement corpus by putting a small amount in equity funds or in your unit-linked pension plan. Chennai-based Uma and Ramesh Gopalan (see picture) invest in diversified equity funds because their GPF is completely based on debt.

Case of Uma & Ramesh Gopalan
Don't chase returns

Retirement is a non-negotiable goal. The worst thing you can do is to be lured by high returns. Studies have shown that when it comes to long-term goals such as retirement, the time at which you start saving and the amount you put away have a greater bearing on your final corpus than the return that your investment earns. The best part about retiral benefits from an employer is that these are compulsory and automatic. In the organised sector, the employee seldom has a choice. Also, the quantum of the monthly investment is linked to the income. As the income of the investor goes up with every annual increment, so do his retirement savings.

This is a challenge faced by self-employed professionals and those in the unorganised sector. Even a disciplined investor may lose out if he does not raise the quantum of his investments every year.

In fact, the superannuation benefits offered by an employer can fulfil the retirement needs of an investor if he is disciplined. If one starts putting Rs 2,500 a month in the PF or the NPS at 25 (with a matching contribution from his employer and a 10% increase in salary every year), even a modest return of 8% will grow his corpus to Rs 2 crore by the time he retires at 60.

Unfortunately, very few people are able to reach the Rs 2 crore milestone during their careers. Every time they change jobs, the PF balance is either withdrawn, or worse, they forget to transfer it. An estimated Rs 16,000 crore is lying in dormant PF accounts. Employees have as many as 3-4 accounts with different employers or at various locations.

The NPS investors, however, don't face such problems. They cannot withdraw before retirement and their NPS account is portable across employers and locations. Two years ago, the EPFO announced that if there is no activity in an account for more than three years, the balance will stop earning interest. This is expected to nudge subscribers into consolidating their PF accounts.

Swarup says the EPFO is working on a system where there will be no need to transfer the account. As with the NPS, every PF subscriber will be given a unique number when he joins and the account will be portable across employers. "We are in the process of establishing a centralised database of subscribers. Once this is accomplished, we will be able to roll it out in the next 12 months or so," he says.

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