Babar Zaidi | May 8, 2017, 03.15 AM IST | Times of India
Though it was thrown open to the public eight years ago, investors started showing interest in the National Pension System (NPS) only two years ago. Almost 80% of the 4.39 lakh voluntary subscribers joined the scheme only in the past two years. Also, 75% of the 5.85 lakh corporate sector investors joined NPS in the past four years. Clearly, these investors have been attracted by the tax benefits offered on the scheme. Four years ago, it was announced that up to 10% of the basic salary put in the NPS would be tax free. The benefit under Section 80CCD(2d) led to a jump in the corporate NPS registrations. The number of subscribers shot up 83%: from 1.43 lakh in 2012-13 to 2.62 lakh in 2013-14.
Two years ago, the government announced an additional tax deduction of `50,000 under Sec 80CCD(1b). The number of voluntary contributors shot up 148% from 86,774 to 2.15 lakh. It turned into a deluge after the 2016 Budget made 40% of the NPS corpus tax free, with the number of subscribers in the unorganised sector more than doubling to 4.39 lakh. This indicates that tax savings, define the flow of investments in India. However, many investors are unable to decide which pension fund they should invest in. The problem is further compounded by the fact that the NPS investments are spread across 2-3 fund classes.
So, we studied the blended returns of four different combinations of the equity, corporate debt and gilt funds. Ultrasafe investors are assumed to have put 60% in gilt funds, 40% in corporate bond funds and nothing in equity funds. A conservative investor would put 20% in stocks, 30% in corporate bonds and 50% in gilts. A balanced allocation would put 33.3% in each class of funds, while an aggressive investor would invest the maximum 50% in the equity fund, 30% in corporate bonds and 20% in gilts.
Ultra safe investors
Bond funds of the NPS have generated over 12% returns in the past one year, but the performance has not been good in recent months. The average G class gilt fund of the NPS has given 0.55% returns in the past six months. The change in the RBI stance on interest rates pushed up bond yields significantly in February, which led to a sharp decline in bond fund NAVs.
Before they hit a speed bump, gilt and corporate bond funds had been on a roll. Rate cuts in 2015-16 were followed by demonetisation, which boosted the returns of gilt and corporate bond funds. Risk-averse investors who stayed away from equity funds and put their corpus in gilt and corporate bond funds have earned rich rewards.
Unsurprisingly, the LIC Pension Fund is the best performing pension fund for this allocation. “Team LIC has rich experience in the bond market and is perhaps the best suited to handle bond funds,” says a financial planner.
The gilt funds of NPS usually invest in long-term bonds and are therefore very sensitive to interest rate changes. Going forward, the returns from gilt and corporate bond funds will be muted compared to the high returns in the past.
In the long term, a 100% debt allocation is unlikely to beat inflation. This is why financial planners advise that at least some portion of the retirement corpus should be deployed in equities. Conservative investors in the NPS, who put 20% in equity funds and the rest in debt funds, have also earned good returns. Though the short-term performance has been pulled down by the debt portion, the medium- and long-term performances are quite attractive.
Here too, LIC Pension Fund is the best performer because 80% of the corpus is in debt. It has generated SIP returns of 10.25% in the past 3 years. NPS funds for government employees also follow a conservative allocation, with a 15% cap on equity exposure.
These funds have also done fairly well, beating the 100% debt-based EPF by almost 200-225 basis points in the past five years. Incidentally, the LIC Pension Fund for Central Government employees is the best performer in that category. Debt-oriented hybrid mutual funds, also known as monthly income plans, have given similar returns.
However, this performance may not be sustained in future. The equity markets could correct and the debt investments might also give muted returns.
Balanced investors who spread their investments equally across all three fund classes have done better than the ultra-safe and conservative investors. The twin rallies in bonds and equities have helped balanced portfolios churn out impressive returns. Though debt funds slipped in the short term, the spectacular performance of equity funds pulled up the overall returns. Reliance Capital Pension Fund is the best performer in the past six months with 4.03% returns, but it is Kotak Pension Fund that has delivered the most impressive numbers over the long term. Its three-year SIP returns are 10.39% while five-year SIP returns are 11.22%. For investors above 40, the balanced allocation closely mirrors the Moderate Lifecycle Fund. This fund puts 50% of the corpus in equities and reduces the equity exposure by 2% every year after the investor turns 35. By the age of 43, the allocation to equities is down to 34%. However, some financial planners argue that since retirement is still 15-16 years away, a 42-43-year olds should not reduce the equity exposure to 34-35%. But it is prudent to start reducing the risk in the portfolio as one grows older.
Aggressive investors, who put the maximum 50% in equity funds and the rest in gilt and corporate bond funds have earned the highest returns, with stock markets touching their all-time highs. Kotak Pension Fund gave 16.3% returns in the past year. The best performing UTI Retirement Solutions has given SIP returns of 11.78% in five years. Though equity exposure has been capped at 50%, young investors can put in up to 75% of the corpus in equities if they opt for the Aggressive Lifecycle Fund. It was introduced late last year, (along with a Conservative Lifecycle Fund that put only 25% in equities), and investors who opted for it earned an average 10.8% in the past 6 months.
But the equity allocation of the Aggressive Lifecycle Fund starts reducing by 4% after the investor turns 35. The reduction slows down to 3% a year after he turns 45. Even so, by the late 40s, his allocation to equities is not very different from the Moderate Lifecycle Fund. Critics say investors should be allowed to invest more in equities if they want.