PPF versus ELSS is a false comparison

As most of the readers of this blog know, I have been a great fan of PPF over a long time now. Apart from the obvious EEE benefits that it brings to the table, I use PPF as a great foundation to my portfolio. Once it had crossed the 15 year period with a substantial corpus, the benefits of compounding are visibly evident every year and it is a great hedge against any forced distress sale of my equity assets in the event of a market crash.

PPF has been in the news last week as the interest rates for Small Savings Schemes were increased for the next quarter. While this was always on the cards, many investors were skeptical as to whether the government will actually do it. In this case, I think the government was somewhat forced to do it as there are many other reasons why the policy rates need to be hiked. Be that as it may, the reality is that PPF and other schemes will have fluctuating rates over the next decade or so. I see the rates being at a median of 8.5 % with a spread of 0.7 % either way, depending on the situation.

As usual, there were a lot of articles in blogs and postings in Facebook and WhatsApp groups as to whether one should invest in PPF or ELSS for 80 C benefits. This is a very old debate but as the blog has a lot of new readers this year, let me try and address it once more. Firstly, the comparison by itself makes no sense. People are comparing on returns and then coming to the conclusion that ELSS will make you a great deal richer if you invest for 10 years etc. As the English proverb says you cannot compare Apples with Oranges for they are very different fruits in every manner. PPF is a classical debt product and has compounding as the basic benefit, even though the rate of returns will be conservative. ELSS is an Equity product with inherent risk and volatility, having the potential of high returns over a long term duration. This essentially means that their presence in your investment plans must be for very different reasons – just because they both qualify for 80 C exemptions they cannot be compared directly.

Secondly, it makes great sense to invest in both even if it means you exhaust your 80 C limits. If you are having a PF account and cover about 1 lac through it then look at investing the rest 50 K in PPF. I am assuming here that you can invest in equity separately and, if so, look at other MF schemes for your equity investments. There is no need to invest in ELSS just for the 80 C exemptions. Of course, If you do not have surplus after 80 C investments then try to divide your investments between PPF and ELSS. In my opinion even investors who have a PF account must open a PPF account. You can decide on the investment amount based on your context.

Thirdly, some people compare the lock in period of 3 years versus 15 years and so on. Again the comparison is baseless for we are comparing products from two very different asset classes. In any event, for most investors, these are long term investments for future goals and they do not really want to redeem these investments in the next 3 years etc. In fact, the 15 year lock in period of PPF can be seen as an advantage here as you will be having a long term debt product where you can invest every year.

Fourthly, let me give you an example on the returns front, so that people understand the basic difference between the two products :-

  • Assume that an investor has 50 lacs in a PPF account today and he also has 50 lacs in a MF portfolio. He has built this over the last 15 years or so.
  • Let us take the current PPF rate of 8 % and Equity returns at 12 %.
  • In 9 years time PPF will be 1 crore and Equity MF portfolio will be 1.38 crores. After paying taxes on Capital gains for MF, it will be about 1.34 crores.
  • However, let us just assume that in the 7th year the MF portfolio tanks by 15 % as there is a market crash. In the 8th year there is no increase and in the 9th year it again tanks by 10 %. This is not unusual, can happen very easily with equities.
  • In this case, the equity MF portfolio will be at 76 lacs by the end of 9th year.

The point is, equity as an asset class has both volatility and risk as it’s characteristic and the investor needs to understand this. In the above example, if you had a goal of 1 crore in 9 years then PPF will get you there. Equity MF can also get you there handsomely with a big surplus BUT there is a risk that you may not reach your goal too. This is the most important reason for investing in debt products such as PPF. They prevent you from redeeming your equity portfolio at the wrong time due to your needing money for one of your life goals.

So there you have it – next time an expert tells you to junk PPF and put all your money into ELSS, explain to him why that is a bad idea. As I said, you do not need equity or debt investments, both should be part of your portfolio. In fact, PPF is a must have investment and you can have any MF schemes based on your preference, it does not have to be ELSS.

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