Can Anyone Match Our Financial Sentinels?

It was the aftermath of ’08.

There was blood everywhere.

In my desperation to get a grip on things, I was about to make yet another blunder.

The Zurich International Life pitch had found its way into my office through a leading private bank.

The pitch was fantastic.

I got sucked in.

Access to more than 150 mutual funds world wide…

No switching fee…

Switch as many times as you want…

Joining bonus…

Premium holiday after 18 months…

I quickly signed the documents.

What remained cloudy during the pitch was the 10-year lock-in.

Also, nobody mentioned that the exit penalty was exorbitant. I mean, as I later found out, the level of the exit penalty would make Shylock look like JP Morgan.

In the pitch, I found myself hearing that one could exit after 18 months upon payment of 9% interest p.a. on the joining bonus.

Nobody mentioned the full management fees, which I later calculated to be a staggering approximate of 7.75% per annum for myself, since I had opted for a premium holiday as soon as I could.

I mean, when about 7.75% was being deducted from your corpus each year, what in the world was the corpus going to generate? I found myself asking this question after four years of being trapped in the scheme.

I had soon realized that the pitchers had lied in the pitch. In the fine-print, there was no such clause saying that one could exit after 18 months upon payment of 9% interest p.a. on the joining bonus. If I escalated the matter, at least three people would lose their jobs. Naehhh, that was not my style. I let it go.

When I would look at interim statements, the level of deductions each time made me suspect that there were switching fees after all. I could never really attribute the deductions to actual switches, though, because the statements would straight-away show the number of mutual fund units deducted as overall management fees. If there were switching fees, they were getting hidden under the rug of management fees. Since the level of overall fees was disturbing me totally, I had this big and nagging suspicion that they were deducting something substantial for the switches, and were not showing this deduction openly in their statements.

When I compared all this to how Unit-Linked Insurance Plans (ULIPs) were handled in my own country, I was amazed at the difference.

In India, customer was king.

The customer had full access to the investment platform, and could switch at will from his or her own remote computer. Zurich did not allow me such direct access.

The expense-ratio in India was a paltry 1.5% – 2.0% per annum. Compare this to the huge annual deductions made in the case of my Zurich International Life policy.

Lock-ins in India were much lesser, typically three odd years or so.

Some ULIPs in India allowed redemptions during lock-ins, coupled with penalties, while others didn’t. Penalties were bearable, and typically in the 2 – 5 % (of corpus) range. Those ULIPs that did allow such redemptions only did so towards the latter part  of the lock-in, though. Nevertheless, lock-in periods were not long when compared to ten whole years, during which the whole world can change.

The debt-market funds paid out substantially larger percentages as interest in India when compared to the debt-market funds encompassed by Zurich International Life.

In India, deductions from ULIP premiums in the first few years (which were getting lesser and lesser each year due to legislature-revision by the authorities) were off-set by absence of short-term capital gains tax and entry/exit equity commissions upon excessive switching. This meant, that in India, short-term traders could use the ULIP avenue to trade without paying taxes or commissions. Whoahh, what a loop-hole! [I’m sure the authorities would have covered this loop-hole up by now, because this research was done a few years ago.]

ULIPs in India allowed at least 4 switches per annum that were totally free of cost. After that, switches would be charged at a very nominal flat rate of typically about the value of 2-9 USD per switch, which, frankly, is peanuts. I was suspecting that the Zurich fellows were knocking off upto 1% of the corpus per switch, but as I said, I didn’t see the math on paper. Even if I was wrong, their yearly deductions were too large to be ignored. Also, was I making a mistake in furthermore deducing that Zurich was deducting another 1% from the corpus each time the corpus changed its currency? I mean, there was no doubt in my mind that the Indian ULIP industry was winning hands-down as far as transparency was concerned.

In India, people in ULIP company-offices were accessible. You got a hearing. Yeah. Zurich International Life, on the other hand, was registered in the Isle of Man. Alone the time difference put an extra day (effectively) between your query and action. Anyways, all action enjoyed a T+2 or a T+3 at Zurich’s end, and the extra day made it a T+4 if you were unlucky (Indian ULIPs moved @ T+0, fyi & btw). Apart from the T+x, one could only access officials at Zurich through the concerned private bank, and as luck would have it, ownership at this private bank changed. The new owners were not really interested in pursuing dead third-party investments made by their predecessors, and thus, reaching Zurich could have become a huge problem for me, were it not for my new relationship manager at this private bank, who was humanitarian, friendly and a much needed blessing.

By now, I had decided to take a hit and exit. It would, however, be another story to get officials at Zurich to cooperate and see the redemption through. On her own level, and through her personal efforts, my diligent relationship manager helped me redeem my funds from Zurich International Life.  I am really thankful to her. Due to her help, my request for redemption was not allowed to be ignored / put-off till a day would dawn where really bad exit NAVs would apply. Zurich did have the last laugh, knocking off a whopping 30 odd percent off my corpus as exit penalty (Arghhh / Grrrrr)! Since I had managed to stay afloat at break-even despite all deductions made in the four years I was invested, I came out of the investment 30% in the hole. The moment it returned, the remaining 70% was quickly shifted to safe instruments yielding 10%+ per annum. In a few years, my corpus would recover. In less than 4 years, I would recover everything. In another two, I would make up a bit for inflation. Actually, the main thing I was gaining was 6 remaining years of no further tension because of my Zurich International Life policy. This would allow me to approach the rest of my portfolio tension-free.

The Zurich International Life policy had been the only thorn in my portfolio – it was my only investment that was disturbing me.

I had taken a hit, but I had extracted and destroyed the thorn.

It was a win for the rest of my portolio, i.e. for 90%+ of my total funds. Tension-free and full attention heightens the probability of portfolio prosperity.

Yeah, sometimes a win comes disguised as a loss.

When I look back, I admire the Indian financial authorities, who ensure that the Indian retail customer is treated like a king.

Retail customers in other parts of the world receive very ordinary treatment in comparison.

I know this from first-hand experience.

I don’t plan to invest overseas as long as our financial authorities continue to push such discipline into our financial industry.

I don’t often praise too much in India, but where it is due, praise must emanate from the mouth of a beneficiary. We are where we are because of our fantastic financial sentinels!

Three cheers for the Securities and Exchange Board of India, for the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority, and, of course, three cheers and a big hurray for the Reserve Bank of India.

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Deductions – Aren’t They Making You Sick?

The human being likes it easy.

Well, most do.

That’s why, many of us like to give out our hard-earned savings to be managed by a third party.

We like to believe that our full energies are required for our mainstream profession. We don’t want to get into the nitty-gritty of managing our savings.

In fact, we want to know as little as possible about the way our savings are being managed by the third party.

The third party starts from where we left off, and takes it to the Goldman level. Believe me, today, a Goldman attitude is the norm. Wealth manangers are looking to make the maximum out of you. They talk more about ways to squeeze fees out of you than about ways to make your corpus grow.

Chew this, digest it, and when you’re ready, please say the magic words.

All right, all right, I’ll spell it out for you. The magic words are “Enough! Enough! I’ve had enough of fee deductions! I’m ready to manage my savings on my own!”

See, that was simple. Say it, and then do it.

Deductions are a pain. Many strike behind your back. You feel you didn’t know about them. Well, it was all in the fine-print. Did you bother to read the fine-print?

Who reads fine-prints? Wealth managers know the answer to this question. That’s why, all the nasty stuff is put in fine-print. The sugary stuff is saved for the pitch. When an investment is pitched to you, it sounds so sweet, that you feel like jumping into it. Careful. The people, who have prepared the pitch campaign, have spent many days deliberating over it. The person pitching the investment to you has spent long hours practising the pitch. No jumping please. Tell the pitcher to buzz off, and that you’ll call him or her back if and when you’re ready for the investment. Meanwhile, read the fine-print.

This is when the pitcher takes out his last and most deadly weapon. “But Sir, deadline is till tomorrow noon,” is the sound of this time-weapon. Earlier failings have prepared you for this. You have learnt to ignore the time-bomb. You are going to take your own sweet time to decide. It’s your hard-earned money, and the least it deserves is thorough due diligence on your part.

Meanwhile, you’re reading the fine-print. You’re realizing that the game is stacked against you. There’s a monthly mortality / cover deduction in the insurance policy being pitched to you. Then there are administration charges to cover day to day expenses. Don’t forget fund management charges. Now, there’s probably even some adjustment for short-term capital gains tax. Also, there are upfront deductions on the first few premiums, pretty sizable ones. There’s a 3 to 5 year lock-in. Switching charges. Hey, where was all this in the pitch? And remember when they spoke about how you could take a loan against your policy. Did you hear anything about the huge loan disbursement fee, or whether or not service-tax and education cess charges would be passed on to you? And may heaven help you find solace if you surrender your policy prematurely. Premature surrender charges were conceived by the descendants of Shylock himself. Such surrender charges carve out chunks of flesh from your investment’s corpus.

For the company pitching the investment to you, accountability has been made very easy. All they have to do is to deduct all background charges from the daily NAV, and then publish the NAV after these deductions. You will be sent an yearly statement (if you don’t ask for a statement sooner), where stuff like mortality and cover charges will be shown in small-print. Take all this into account while calculating your returns on the investment, before wondering where a chunk of your profits went.

That’s a common scenario in unit-linked insurance policies. The market goes up so much, but your ULIP only yields you this much. Where did the rest go? To answer this question partly, look at the deductions.

The classic counter-argument (made by fund-managers) to above discrepancy is this. The market went up so much, fine, but the scrips in the mutual funds, to which the policy was linked, didn’t move up so much.

Maybe, maybe not. To find out, you’ll have to dig even deeper. Most of us don’t want so much hassle, and we resign ourselves to the dictates of the investment’s deduction policies.

Meanwhile, here’s an alternative. Learn. Study. One hour a day. Your savings deserve this from you. Every learning resource is available online, and most of what is available is free of cost. Make use of this unique opportunity. In a few years you’ll be savvy enough to manage your own funds. Thus, you’ll save yourself from the scourge of deductions.

Connect to market forces by playing with your own money, yourself. Learning solidifies in your system when you put your own money on the line. Play small for many years. Make all your mistakes in these years. Get mistakes out of the way. Learn from them. Don’t repeat them.

Soon, you’ll realize that you are ready to scale it up. Your system will sense that you have now gone beyond making big blunders, and will send you the appropriate signals telling you to scale up.

Welcome to the world of applied finance. May yours be a long and lucrative tenure.