How I plan to use my PPF account

With the rate reduction in PPF scheme and the knowledge that it is going to be aligned to market rates every quarter from now on, is it still a good idea to have it in my portfolio? In my audit of investments for last FY that was the main question I was faced with regarding my PPF investments.

Now in terms of personal finance every issue and decision is contextual and the situation of the individual makes all the difference. In my case I have a PPF account since 1994 and my wife has started a second account in 2013 after the first one was matured in 2004. Some details of these accounts are as follows:-

  • My present maturity is in 2019 April and current balance is about 20 % of our total debt portfolio.
  • My wife’s account will mature in 2028 and currently is about 3.5 % of our debt portfolio.
  • Contribution of 1.5 lacs is made every year in the first week of April to both accounts.

Given the tax treatment of PPF at EEE, I see no reason to stop my investments in it even though the interest rates have reduced to 7.8% currently. I think the returns on PPF will go down further to about 7.5% or so, but even that is not a bad rate for an EEE instrument. In the coming years the interest rate cycle is very likely to turn around and at that point in time, PPF will immediately get benefited as the rates are market linked now.

With the investment decision taken, the next issue is how to use the money in the account. So far I have not withdrawn any money out of my account since 1994 and do not plan to do so till the current maturity in April 2019. The same goes for my wife’s account. Her first PPF maturity amount had helped us greatly to boost the down payment that we were able to make for our apartment in Chennai.

So after a lot of thought these are the conclusions I have come to:-

  • Continue my account after 2019 for another 5 years while being open to withdrawals for any emergency post 2019.
  • Assuming that my daughter gets married in the period beyond 2019, such withdrawals can fund her marriage expenses to the extent needed. Even though I have investments in equity for it, a hedge against market crashes is prudent.
  • Withdrawals can also be used for discretionary purposes such as replacement of white goods, vacations outside India etc.
  • As I will normally not need the PPF account withdrawals for my regular expenditure at least till 2024 or so, in the absence of any of the above the money will simply grow.
  • As far as my wife’s PPF account goes it will grow to 40 lacs plus by 2028. At this point if the returns are decent we will continue it. Note that we can withdraw 24 lacs in the subsequent 5 years from her account.
  • Assuming that I can withdraw about twice that amount from my account in 5 years, the total withdrawn amount in 5 years will be 72 lacs. This can be used for a variety of purposes as explained earlier.

How will I fund the 3 lacs per year? As of now, I am doing it from my Consultancy income and hope to do so for the next 5-6 years. Beyond that or in case the income is insufficient in a year, I have plans to fund it through the redemption of debt funds such as FMP etc that keep happening every year.

In the end what does the PPF investment mean to me? Well, it is something from which I can withdraw any time I have an exceptional expense whether due to an emergency or due to an indulgence that we need to do. It also gives me the cushion of not having to redeem my equity investments for fulfilling a goal, when the markets are in a bad situation.

In short it contributes a great deal to my peace of mind.

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Need regular income? There are better options to FD

In the last post I had said that we will need to look at a category separately, those who are retired or otherwise and seek regular income for their expenses. Most of these people keep their money in Bank FD’s. Some look at slightly riskier options of corporate FD or NCD in order to earn a little more interest. In this post I will examine options such people have in looking at other instruments.

Now, to give some structure to the discussions let us assume the investor will need 6 lacs per year for his expenses, given that he has a home to stay in and his children being settled financially. If he has 1 crore out of his retirement proceeds or other assets, one option will be to put it in FD. As a senior citizen he will probably get a rate of 7.5 % per year today. So he gets 7.5 lacs in a year which will be good enough for his expenses. As a senior citizen his taxes on this will be 60000 Rs, can also get reduced if he invests in 80 C instruments, medical insurance etc.

So, if this seems to work, why should they just not do it? Firstly, there is no guarantee that the interest rates will not go down further. Secondly, inflation is always going to be a factor and even with a 6 % inflation the costs will double in 12 years time. Thirdly, as no one can predict the life span it will always be better to have some growth factored into your portfolio. In the FD scenario there is absolutely no growth. Fourthly, with increasing expenses you will soon be eating into the capital and may reach a situation that you run out of money long before your passing away.

Let me outline some alternatives with the pros and cons that the investor can look at. I will not go into too much theory here, those are all available in my blog or in the public domain. 

  • Keep the money in the dividend option of MIP funds. These funds mostly give a monthly dividend which will be tax free in your hands. However, there is a Dividend Distribution Tax the fund house has to pay.
  • You can also use the Growth option of MIP and redeem to the extent you need money every month. It will be better to do this after your investment has crossed 3 years as you can get the benefit of LTCG indexation.
  • If you have planned earlier then set up 3 year FMP. As they mature you can use the capital gains for your regular expenses and reinvest the Principal amount in other FMP. With the rates coming down you may want to invest in dual advantage FMP to get incrementally better returns, though with some element of risk.
  • You can put your money in ICICI Balanced Advantage or similar funds which allow selection of dividend in a defined manner. At a rate of 9 % your returns will be adequate for your expenses and dividends are tax free in your hands. However, as the equity exposure is significant here, the element of risk is also high.
  • The above strategy can be also used with Equity Savings Funds, Dynamic Funds or even pure Equity funds as long as you are able to afford the risk.
  • Finally, you can of course try a combination of the above.

How do I invest myself ? Well, for several years now I have no Fixed income product except for Post Office MIS and that was done with a specific purpose in mind. My alternatives have been in FMP, Balanced funds, Gilt funds, MIP, Equity Savings Funds and so on.  For the debt space, I feel I have got a good balance between decent returns and good tax efficiency.

I will write in some details on these later on and also share a couple of real life case studies.

So what is the alternative to FD’s ?

In the last post I wrote about why FD as an investment is not at all a suitable one. It offers low returns and is clearly not tax efficient. The natural question therefore is, which are the investments to replace traditional bank FD? In this post I will try to answer the same.

Let us first look at why do people invest in FD. There can be many reasons but 3 of them are the most common ones:-

  1. Many people simply do not know of any options for savings and think this is a safe way which will also earn some returns.
  2. Some investors look at FDs as a good place for an Emergency fund and also for any goal that may be coming up in the next 1-5 years.
  3. Retired people and others who want a regular source of income keep their money invested in FD for the longer term.

In this post I will deal with the first two as the last one is more complex in nature and deserves to be dealt with separately.

For the first category of people, if they are able to keep the money for long term, my recommendation will be PPF. The returns here are more than FD today and they are tax free. Moreover you get 80 C benefits with PPF, so if you have not exhausted your 1.5 lac limit through other means, this is a great benefit. Also, though PPF is for a 15 year term, you can make withdrawals after 6 years. Finally, if you start early, this will be a great backup to your MF redemption, in the years which are not good for equity.

What if you do not want a long term product such as PPF? Well, one option can be Arbitrage funds which will probably give you returns of around 7 %. While this is pretty much the same as FD, the tax treatment is much better as you will not be paying any taxes on the capital gains after one year. You can therefore park your money here and redeem it in a tax free manner for any needs in an ongoing basis. Arbitrage funds are also quite risk free as far as your capital is concerned, unlike equity funds.

Regular Debt funds or FMP, MIP etc will work if your time frame is at least 3 years. This is the time you need to keep your money to get indexation benefits for LTCG. Note here that with the Cost Inflation Index ( CII ) being dampened due to lower inflation numbers, you will still need to pay some taxes but this would be on a much lower scale. Also, as the interest rates will go up, Debt funds and MIP are likely to have a lower return. We are pretty much at the bottom of the cycle and rates will go up in the next 1-2 years. Finally MIP will do very well if equities are doing well but therein lies the risk too.

In conclusion for the first category of people, use the following strategies:-

  • If you are OK with a little risk go for MIP and Debt funds.
  • If you are having lower risk taking ability but can wait 3 years or more go for FMP. Here too you can look at Dual Advantage FMP if some risk is all right.
  • In case you do not have 3 years and are looking at moderate but steady returns, look at Arbitrage funds.
  • If you just want to save and are not going to need the money for long, look at PPF.

What about category 2 people? Many financial planners will advise you to withdraw from equity and part the money in debt some 3 years before your goal etc. I have never found any sense in this as you might really be losing out on growth by such actions. At the same time being purely in equity is not a good idea either. You need to take some middle path which balances the needs of both growth and safety.

  • Higher risk takers can try Equity Savings Funds or Balanced Funds.
  • Moderate risk takers can try MIP, Dual Advantage FMP, Debt funds
  • Risk averse investors can try FMP, Liquid funds, Arbitrage funds

Note here that the higher risk options are more suited to 3 years plus time frame.

So, there you have it. Now that you know what to do with your money which is in bank FD’s, go ahead and stop those. You will soon thank me for having written this post !!

Do you still invest in Fixed deposits? Need to change

As the readership of my blog and also the Facebook group has increased, I get a lot of queries from readers on how should they go about making a financial plan and their investments. There are also many requests from my friends and relatives in terms of reviewing their current investments and make suggestions on the same.

One of the things which surprises me every time I see it is the continued fascination that many investors still retain for Fixed deposits. Yes, I understand that they are perceived to be safe and highly liquid but from an overall financial perspective they really do not make any sense at all. Let me give you a few examples to illustrate my point.

  • A senior IT executive working in an MNC from Bangalore, had more than 30 lacs in FD. He said he was keeping it handy for his daughter’s higher education or marriage as the case may be.
  • Another IT professional from Kolkata working in TCS was having more than 20 lacs in FD. He said it was a combination of Emergency and contingency fund.
  • A cousin of mine, who is a Doctor with a private practice, recently approached me for suggestions on how he should invest 35 lacs that he got from FD maturity.

Note that these are people who are well educated, see TV a fair amount, read financial and other newspapers and are exposed to various financial blogs. If despite these they are investing in FD as a main channel then one can well imagine what most other investors from small towns or villages are doing. So while the Mutual fund SIP figures have greatly grown, the number of investors in FD and the amount of money they have in these deposits are still a mind boggling number.

But why am I saying that you should avoid FD in the main? Note that I have no issues if you have some 2-3 lacs in FD for Emergency purposes, though even that is not strictly necessary. Let me take the case of my cousin who had 35 lacs in FD till June of this year. 

  • The older FDs were at a higher interest rate so he was getting 9 % interest on them. 
  • His annual earning out of the 35 lacs was 3.15 lacs. All of this was taxable at 30 % as his other income is significantly more than 10 lacs.
  • The effective return was therefore only 6.3 %.

When the older FDs matured his banker told him that the best possible rates were 6.9 % in his bank. That would mean an effective rate of less than 5 %. It finally dawned on my cousin that it was really against common sense to renew the FDs. Even though he was told by his banker that other options are risky, he stuck to his guns about the renewal.

Are you like any of these examples listed above? Do you have a lot of money in FD and are paying taxes on the interest earned? If you are not paying taxes it is worse as the IT authorities are keeping a very close watch on all the FDs, even where a Form 15H or 15G has been submitted.

I think all readers are convinced by now that FD is really not a good idea. But the natural question then is, what do we invest in then? Will it be safe? What about liquidity? There are fortunately good answers to all these questions. I will write about it in the next post.

 

FMP investments may not pay off now

Followers of my blog will know that I have significant investments in Fixed Maturity Plans of fund houses. These were undoubtedly the best instruments till 2014 where the LTCG indexation was available after 1 year as opposed to 3 years for other debt funds. In that period all capital gains from FMP were akin to tax free income for me

While the Finance minister changed the LTCG time frame to 3 years in the budget of 2014, FMP was still a viable instrument if you were willing to hold it for 3 years. The reasonable returns, coupled with the indexation benefits made it more attractive than many other Debt funds. Personally, I rolled over all my FMP investments to 3 years and that worked quite well for me – I used the capital gains for my regular expenses, mostly discretionary ones, and reinvested the principal amount in FMP or other hybrid funds. Of late I have preferred Hybrid funds rather than pure Debt focused FMP.

So why do I say now that this is no longer something which can pay off? There are two broad trends in this space that forms the basis of my opinion. Firstly, with the lowering of inflation and consequently the interest rates any fresh FMP will be likely to give returns only between 7 % and 7.5 %. Remember that by it’s very nature FMP’s invest in securities at the start of term and hold it till maturity. While this provides good downside protection, it obviously does not work well when the interest rate cycle reverses direction. For example even if the interest rates increase by 100 basis points next year, the 3 year FMP I start now will not get any benefit from the same. 

Secondly, with the inflation rates in the economy having a downward trend, the Cost Inflation Index is rising at a much slower pace than before. As a result the indexation benefits one was used to getting earlier will be significantly lower now. In real terms this means higher capital gains after indexation and therefore a higher tax liability. These two factors combined will mean that your effective post tax returns from FMP will be much lower than it used to be 2 years back.

Let me try to illustrate this with a real life example from my portfolio below:-

  • An ICICI FMP bought in November 2013 and rolled over subsequently has now matured in July 2017.
  • Purchase cost was 1 lac, Redemption was done at 1, 34, 529 Rs and the indexed purchase cost with application of new CII was 1, 19, 809 Rs.
  • Capital gains after indexation is therefore 14, 720 Rs. Tax on it @ 20 % is 2944 Rs.
  • Effective returns over 3.5 years is therefore 31.5 %
  • CAGR over this period will be only 8 %

Now while a post tax return of nearly 8 % is definitely not bad in today’s scenario, remember that this will keep getting worse and will be a lot lower for an FMP you are entering today for the next 3 years.

Now if we agree that FMP is not the preferred instrument of investment right now, the question remains as to where can we invest then? I will recommend Hybrid funds that have some exposure to equity apart from debt. Look at the following options:-

  • Dual Advantage Funds among FMP space
  • Equity Savings Funds
  • Monthly Income Plans
  • Dynamic Funds

All these will come with some risk exposure but 3 years on our markets should be doing better than today anyway.

Debt investments which have worked well for me lately

As many of my readers will know well by now, I am a great advocate of the 3 portfolio strategy with Debt, Stocks and MF each having an important place. Of these, stocks and MF are typically for the long term and something I will normally not redeem in the next decade at least and maybe even later. Debt is different – in my FI state I depend on it for passive income and use some of this for my regular expenditure. 

One of the obvious approaches in debt investments is to understand the interest rate cycle and try to lock investments for a possible longer term, in order to maximise your interest earning out of these. While there is a bit of luck and speculation involved in this, if you are following the economy properly, it is possible to get these signals correct more often than not. A few of the situations in the past years which has really stood me in good stead are as follows:-

  • I normally put some amount as FD for my parents so that they get a monthly amount to supplement their income. I consolidated a larger amount in 2015 and locked it in for 3 years at a rate of 9.5 %. Current rates are 7.5 % only.
  • Despite several people advising me against it, I went ahead and invested in a big manner in the Tax free bonds of 2013-2014. The rates were close to 9 % and today it gives me an interest to meet nearly 25 % of my annual expenditure needs.
  • Our earlier POMIS matured in December 2015 with a rate of 8 %. I reinvested 9 lacs in a joint account with my wife at a rate of 8.4 %. Today the rate is 7.5 % or so.
  • In the 2013-2015 period I rolled over most of my FMP schemes as the rates of interest were favourable and it made sense to lock these in further. 
  • I also invested fresh into many FMP schemes as it seemed a good idea to have investments which locked into government papers at the then prevailing rates.
  • I continued my investments in PPF even though the rates kept coming down based on the alignment of Small savings schemes to the market rates. The EEE nature of it plus the possibility of a rate increase when the cycle reverses make it worthwhile.

While all of these were great till 2015 or so, since the last year, with the rates going down steadily with each RBI policy, Debt instruments have become more of a challenge. For all the instruments that are maturing today, one needs to look into alternatives that will give decent returns compared to a pure debt product.

In the meantime however, I am quite happy with the above decisions I had made. The best of them were definitely the investment in Tax free bonds.

FMP redemption – a case study in April

As all my regular readers will know, a lot of my debt investment have been historically into FMP instruments. The basic premise of this is simple – it is a safe investment with relatively stable interest rates you can lock into for 3 years or more, the indexation benefits are good and consequently the taxes are reasonably low. If you want to read more about why I invest in it you can go through the FMP related blog posts.

The way I approach FMP redemption proceeds can be summarised as below:-

  • The capital gains are used for my regular expenditure if required. These form a good part of my passive income stream and, more often than not, I use it for some discretionary expenses.
  • I normally reinvest the principal amount in some other debt instrument, it could be FMP again or something else depending on the context of time.

So far in April, 3 of my FMP investments have been redeemed and the overall details are as follows:-

  • The principal amount in these three were 7 lacs.
  • Total capital gains arising out of these redemption is 2.25 lacs. In terms of XIRR it translates to around 9.75 % which is pretty good.
  • At this point in time, I do not really need the capital gains for my expenditure. This is mainly due to my active income through Consultancy which is more than adequate to take care of my regular and discretionary expenses.

Based on the above considerations I have decided to invest 9 lacs out of the redemption amount. In the present interest rate cycle, investing in pure debt products will really not make sense. As such, I am looking at the following distribution:-

  • Dual advantage FMP which invest in equity to a small extent.
  • Close ended equity funds such as Sundaram long term micro cap fund.
  • Equity savings funds.
  • MIPs
  • Funds such as ICICI Balanced Advantage fund or Edelweiss Absolute Return fund.

As some of these funds are dependent on market levels, I will be waiting for the annual results to be out. My feeling is Nifty will get down to below 9000 levels shortly and that will be a good time for me to buy these instruments.