Wednesday, May 25, 2022

How to Find Your Way Through the Mutual Fund Maze

Ok, you believe the Indian cricketers (except Virat Kohli – TV ad fee too high!) who tell you “Mutual Fund sahi hai”, and decide to put money into mutual funds (MFs) schemes. How do you go about it?


The first option is—do it yourself. Decide how much risk you want to take and choose the right funds to match your risk appetite. Easier said than done, especially if you have little or no knowledge about finance. Besides, there are 44 asset management companies (AMCs) in India (those who create the MFs) and between them they have over 2,600 different MF schemes. How do you decide which one is best for you? Better not venture alone into this maze.


The next option is – ask someone who knows about all this stuff, maybe the ‘stock guru’ in your neighbourhood, or a friend, who dabbles in stocks and funds. But will you put your hard earned money on the word of just anyone?


The third option is—ask your bank. That relationship manager (RM) who has been hounding you to put money in MFs—surely he is an ‘expert’? 


Sorry, bank RMs are not experts in anything, particularly not experts in MFs. They are just salesmen, the derogatory term being ‘sellu’ or ‘bechu’. They will lie through their teeth to get you to buy the funds which are on their ‘sell’ list. Here is how it works.


Let us go back to the fundamentals of selling. What do you need in a sales job? A product to sell, a profit on the sale, and a buyer. Banks have the buyers—depositors with little knowledge and lots of idle money. Mutual funds companies supply the products and the profit (in the form of commission on sales). The MF company ties up with a bank to sell its fund schemes for a nice commission. The bank instructs its RMs to ‘push’ only these fund schemes. 


The RMs use their depositors as ‘stuffees’.


Remember leasing—‘lessors’ and ‘lessees’? In the world of MFs there are ‘stuffers’ and ‘stuffees’. The depositors are the stuffees down whose throats high-commission fund schemes are stuffed.


What happens if the fund scheme flop and don’t give good returns? If you run to the RM to complain he will give you some story, and make you sell the fund scheme and buy another, on which the bank will again get commission.


All right, all right, you may be saying. So better to talk to a ‘real’ expert, isn’t it?


Hmmm…..Yes and No. It depends on what type of expert.


If you are looking for an expert in mutual funds, you may land up with a ‘mutual fund distributor’ (MFD) who will take you through this process:

  • The MFD chap will sit down with you and give you lots of ‘gyan’ about investing and how good his company is at guiding investors.
  • He will do a ‘risk profile analysis’ of you based on what you disclose about your income, savings, liabilities, and financial goals.
  • He will design the ‘ideal’ portfolio for you, composed of various “absolutely the best” fund schemes.


When you are totally overwhelmed and venture to ask how much the MFD will charge you, he will magnanimously say “absolutely nothing—totally free service”.

Wow!! All free? You reach for your cheque book.


Beware! There is no free lunch, and no free service. The MFD will earn commission from the funds of up to 3% up front, and thereafter keep getting a ‘trail’ commission year after year if you hold on to the fund. This commission comes out of your investment, i.e., if you put in Rs100 you actually receive Rs97-98 worth of MF scheme.


But a more likely scenario is that the MFD will periodically ‘churn’ your portfolio, i.e. make you sell the fund scheme you have and buy other, ‘better’ ones. Every time you put money into yet another fund scheme, the MFD will get a commission. You can be pretty sure that every fund scheme that the MFD makes you buy is one in which it gets the best commission, not one which serves your interest the most.


Oh, cruel world of MFs! 


Is there nobody who will give you honest advice, one that is good for you and not for him?


Yes there is, but there is a catch. It is not free. You have to pay a fee.


We Indians are used to paying fees for many services, such as fees to a doctor, a lawyer, or even a small tip to a delivery man. But when it comes to paying a fee for investment advice, people are strangely reluctant, perhaps because the MFDs give ‘free’ advice.


But the fee for investment advice actually costs you nothing!  Let me explain.


The Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) has set down rules for two types of MF experts: MFDs and registered investment advisors (IAs). I have already told you about how the MFDs work. Let me tell you about the other lot—the IAs.


My friend, and erstwhile colleague, is an IA, registered with SEBI. Currently he is busy studying for his exams. He is almost as old as me—68, and he has been in the investment business from the time his beard was wispy and black, whereas today it rivals Modiji’s beard in whiteness and abundance. Yet SEBI has stipulated that he must pass an exam called the National Institute of Securities Markets (NISM) periodically, so as to keep in touch with market trends. Further, since he has set up a “corporate’ by bringing in Rs50 lakh as capital, he has to acquire a post-graduate degree (minimum 2-year course, none of this 12- and 18- month stuff). So he has to study.


I feel these stipulations are an overkill for a budding type of expertise in a market where only 4% of savings go into MFs (real estate, gold and FDs are the preferred savings routes in India) as compared to 40% in the US. Perhaps because of these stipulations the number of IAs in India is miniscule, to be counted in hundreds. Nevertheless, SEBI’s bureaucrats have decided to copy the developed markets in setting these norms – hence SoBI it.


An IA will charge you a fee based on the amount you invest, typically 1%-1.25% per annum of the investment amount, or you can agree to a flat annual fee of Rs1.2 lakh or more for your total investment. But the IA does not get any commission from the fund schemes you buy, unlike a MFD which suggests various fund schemes and gets a commission of 2% or more from your money. The MF companies charge you an entry fee of typically 1% when you buy a ‘direct” fund, i.e., a zero-commission fund, through an IA, so that you get Rs99 worth of MF for every Rs100 you invest.


Net net, you pay the same whether you deal with a MFD or an IA—2%-2.5%. 


Additionally, an IA is required to take care of all the nitty-gritties associated with investing in MFs – movements of money, tax returns, and market overviews, which an MFD is not required to give you.


The bottom line is – an IA gains nothing by recommending any one fund scheme vis-à-vis another. His only concern must be to keep your money safe and get you the best returns in line with the risk level you are prepared to take. If he doesn’t perform, you can dump him and find another IA.


By now you know I have gone the IA route. Which route would you choose?


(Deserting engineering after a year in a factory, Amitabha Banerjee did an MBA in the US and returned to India. Choosing work-to-live over live-to-work, he joined banking and worked for various banks in India and the Middle East. Post retirement, he returned to his hometown Kolkata and is now spending his golden years travelling the world (until Covid, that is), playing bridge, befriending Netflix & Prime Video and writing in his wife’s travel blog.)

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