The end of mutual funds, when it came, was sudden but not unexpected. For over 10 years, mutual fund has been scripting its own growth demise, embarking on a reckless course of high risks, unhealthy pastimes, and unchecked maladies. Ironically but fittingly too, the very hand that had supported and sustained it through the turbulent early period of its existence was the one that, finally wielded the euthanasian syringe. The individual investor it was who had made the mutual fund post-liberalisation, India's most vibrant vehicle for individual investment. The individual investor it was who brought the curtain down on an act that had started with a virtuoso performance, only to putrefy into a show of ineptitude, imprudence, and irresponsibility.
The mutual fund, as we know it, may be dead. It died of many things. But, primarily, of a cancer that ate away at its innards. A cancer that destroyed the value of the investments, the mutual funds was made to service the Rs. 85,000 crore that India's investors had entrusted them with ever since they began life way back in 1964 as The Unit Trust Of India's (UTI), now disgraced Unit Scheme 64(US 64). A cancer that grew from the refusal of the men and women to manage the mutual fund to exercise a mixture of caution and aggression, but to adopt, instead, an indisciplined, unplanned, fire-from-the hip approach to investment. A cancer that ultimately, robbed the mutual funds of the resources they would have to use to pay back their investors, leaving them on Death Row. Indeed, the scandal that US 64 had been brewing for years, was only one, but not the first, of the warning bells that pointed to the near emptiness of many a mutual fund's coffers. In quick succession have emerged reports of more and more fund-schemes that have been laid bare, their corpuses empty, their ability to meet their promises of assured returns to investors demolished. At least 37 per cent of the 235 fund schemes in operation in the country have promised investors assured returns of over 15 per cent for 5 years, and repurchase-prices well above their Net Asset Values (NAVs).
According to a study conducted by the Delhi-based Value Research, at least 18 big schemes due for redemption over the next three years will be unable to service their investors, or even return their money at the time of redemption. The shortfall? Rs. 4,685.10 crore. Or 75.87 per cent of the amount handed over by trusting investors to fund managers. Worries Ajai Kaul, 38, president, Alliance Capital Asset Management: "When an assured-returns scheme runs into problems, investors view it as one more let-down by the mutual funds." Had they but known of the actual practices seen in the offices and hallways of the mutual funds, which have translated into these results, investors would have shown their disgust long ago.
Take the case of a mutual fund company that manages more than a dozen schemes. According to an unwritten, but formalised, principle, each scheme takes it in turn to sell some of its holdings to its sister-schemes, booking fat notional gains and posting NAVs. While investors responded by pouring in even more of their savings, the profits were clearly only on paper. In the offices of another asset management company half way across Mumbai, the demand for cellular-phones peaked six months ago. Its employees had, suddenly, realised that making their personal deals using information gathered in the course of their professional work, was best done over cell phones so that the company's records wouldn't show the call being made. Obviously, the hot tips went to fatten their — and not investors' — pockets. Earlier, quite a few merchant bankers entered the mutual funds industry to use the corpus to subscribe to the issues they were managing. It took a crash in the primary market — not ethics or investigations — for this practice to stop. Filled with fear and loathing — and righteous anger — the investor has, therefore, decided to adjure the mutual fund. According to Marketing And Development Research Associates (MDRA) opinion poll of 342 investors conducted last fortnight in the five metros — Bangalore, Kolkata, Chennai, Delhi and Mumbai — mutual funds as an investment instrument now ranks a lowly fourth on safety — after bank deposits, gold, and real estate — and fifth on returns — ahead only of bank deposits and gold. And only 14.20 per cent of the sample will even consider investing in a mutual fund in the future. Still, it is the species that has died, not its every member. The ones that have survived are the bright performers who beat the market benchmark — the 100 — scrip. The Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) National Index — by the widest margins within their three genres: growth, income and balance. However, even their star turns have not been able to stave off the stench of death over the business. In fact, an autopsy of the late — and, at the moment not particularly lamented — mutual funds reveal a sordid saga of callousness and calumny. Sheer disaster stares the mutual funds in the face and a cataclysm could destroy the savings of lakhs of investors too. A Value Research estimate of probable shortfall that 18 assured-returns schemes will face at the time of their scheduled redemptions over the three years adds up to a sense-numbing Rs. 4,685 crore. An independent audit of the 60 assured-returns schemes managed by the public sector mutual funds conducted by Price Waterhouse Coopers at the behest of the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) estimated a shortfall of between Rs. 2,500 crore and Rs. 3,000 crore. In 1999 alone judging from their present NAVs, the four schemes due for redemption — Canbank Asset Management Company's Cantriple, IndBank Asset Management Company's IndPrakash, SBI Funds Management's Magnum Triple Plus, and BOI Mutual Fund's (BOIMF) Double Square Plus — are heading for a collective shortfall of Rs. 1,639.55 crore.
As of June 30, 1998, the country's 252 fund-schemes managed assets with a market value of Rs. 69,599 crore, with the UTI alone controlling the fate of Rs. 50,000 crore. That is Rs. 11,000 crore less than the money invested in these schemes as of June 30, 1997, which means that the mutual funds have wiped out Rs. 11,000 crore from the investors' hard earned money in the intervening 12 months. Of course, every fund is paying for the sins of the black sheep.
For, the villain of the piece was UTI and the 95 funds managed by the public sector banks and institutions, the value of whose corpuses fell from Rs. 66,748 crore to Rs. 57,350 crore in the past year. In fact, these funds contributed 85.40 per cent of the overall value-loss, with the private sector funds boosting their corpuses from Rs. 4,000 crore to Rs. 4,120 crore to lower the extent of the erosion. For investors, that has translated into an option of either exiting at a loss — or holding on in vain hope. On November 20, 1998, a depressing 77 per cent of the 58 listed fund schemes were quoting at discounts of between 5 per cent and 40 per cent to their NAVs. And what of the NAVs themselves? The units of a shoulder-slumping 15 per cent of the schemes were worth less than their par values. And US 64, of course continued to languish, with an estimated NAV of Rs. 9.68. Even if there are schemes that have performed individually well, that the mutual funds have collectively failed to deliver couldn't be more obvious. So investors' murderous mood can hardly be debated. Their genesis and growth reveals just what blinded the mutual funds to the possibility of failure. Forty per cent of the banks-and-insurance companies-promoted funds in operation were launched between 1987 and 1993, when the stock markets were bull-dominated. In a period that saw only one bear phase, the BSE Sensitivity Index (the Sensex) climbed by 346 per cent.
Being successful with equity investments required no skills; only investible funds. Nor was fund-raising a problem, as investors desperately sought ways to grab a piece of equity boom. Between 1984 and 1989, the mutual funds collected Rs. 13,455 crore as subscriptions, but, in the next five years, they picked up Rs. 45,573 crore. In January, 1994, the UTI's Mastergain mopped up a stunning Rs. 4,700 crore while the most awaited Morgan Stanley Growth — a showcase for the fabled fund-management metier of the foreign mutual funds — took in Rs. 1,000 crore in just three days. Low entry-barriers — a so called sound track-record, a general reputation of fairness and integrity, an application-fee of Rs. 25,000, a registration fee of Rs. 25 lakh and an annual fee of Rs. 2.50 lakh — made entering the business a snap. Explains Ajay Srinivasan, 34, CEO, Prudential ICICI Mutual Fund: "Mutual funds were misunderstood by investors. Everyone thought they were a one way ticket to a jackpot." Intoxicated, fund-managers poured in more and more of their corpuses into equity, ignoring the downsides, confident that the boom would last forever. In the process, they ignored the very concept of risk-management, blithely ignoring the safety net of fixed-income instruments, and accusing those who advised caution of being cowards. In 1995, for instance, ABN estimated 70 per cent of the money being managed by the mutual funds had been funnelled into equity.
Whether they knew it or not, they were breaking away from the trend set by the mutual funds in the US, where the industry began by investing primarily in the money market, with only 25 per cent of their corpus set aside for stocks. Only in the past 15 years, after operating for more than seven decades, have those funds ventured into equity. Unfortunately, their success blinded the fund-managers to the fact that they were riding a wave-not navigating the treacherous seas. As Vivek Reddy, 36, CEO, Kothari-Pioneer Mutual Fund, puts it: "It was the stock market conditions that helped the mutual funds deliver returns, not superior investment skills." Then, the stock markets collapsed and never quite recovered. Between July 1997 and October 1998, the Sensex free-fell from 4306 to 2812 finally nullifying the theory that if you wait long enough, share-prices are always bound to rise. And the mutual fund, unused to a diet of falling equity indices, collapsed too. The quantum of money mopped up by the mutual fund may suggest that the reports of its extinction have been greatly exaggerated. In 1997-98, Indians entrusted Rs. 18,701 crore to the mutual funds, with new schemes alone mopping up Rs. 12,279 crore. Questions R. G Sharma, 58, CEO, LIC Mutual Fund: "How do you explain that Dhanvarsha 12 and Dhanvarsha 13, floated in April and September 1998, managed to mop up Rs. 335 crore?" Not quite a loss of faith, would you say? Think again. In those 12 months, those very investors also took away Rs. 16,227 crore in the form of repurchases and redemptions, leaving only Rs. 2,474 crore more in the hands of fund-managers. What's more, since none of the withdrawals could have been made from the new schemes, the old schemes, obviously, gave it all up, effectively yielding Rs. 9,805 crore to angry investors who took away their money. It is the same story this year: in the first quarter of 1998-99, old schemes collected Rs. 2,340 crore, compared to the new schemes' Rs. 1,735 crore but they gave up Rs. 2,749 crore ending up Rs. 409 crore poorer. Sure, some people are still putting money into the mutual funds. The real reason: money is flowing in from two genres of investors — neither of whom is the quintessential urban. The first comprises people in the semi-urban and rural areas, for whom names like the LIC and GIC still represent safety and assured schemes of income. Importantly, this category investor isn't clued into the financial markets, and is not, accordingly, aware of the problems that confront the mutual funds. Confirms Nikhil Khatau, 38, Managing Director, Sun F & C Asset Management: "That market is fairly stable. "However, as soon as the fundamental problems hit their dividend-paying ability, even the die hard mutual fund investor from India's villages and small towns — who, don't forget, has already been singed by the disappearance of thousands of nonbanking finance companies — will swear off their favourite investment vehicle. The second genre of investor explains why the private sector funds have been successful in soaking up large sums: 31.10 per cent of the total takings in 1997-98, and 10.70 per cent in the first quarter of 1998-99. They are the so called high net worth players — corporates and individuals — who in Khatau's terms, ‘are aggressive about managing their wealth, and look closely at comparative performance’. While their fastidiousness has forced them to pick the private sector mutual funds, whose disclosures and performance has both been ahead of their public sector cousins, their interest does not represent every investor's disillusionment.
The increase in the number of cell phone subscriptions in the office of an asset management company was due to the fact that
The answer can be inferred from the given lines:" In the offices of another asset management company half way across Mumbai, the demand for cellular-phones peaked six months ago. Its employees had, suddenly, realized that making their personal deals using information gathered in the course of their professional work, was best done over cell phones so that the company's records wouldn't show the call being made."
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