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Thursday, June 7, 2012

What to do when the stock market is bearish and volatile?

When stock markets are bearish and volatile, small investors feel anxious and unsure of what to do. Activity, innovation and endeavour are useful in business and employment – but they detract from wealth building. One has to be passive, dispassionate and patient to be able to make correct investment decisions when there is chaos and bad news flying around.

Having a financial plan with clear goals, and an asset allocation plan to meet those goals, helps investors to remain calm and resolute under adverse conditions. A proper asset allocation plan should include an equity component, a fixed income/debt component, a small allocation to gold and some cash. If you don’t have a plan yet, the time to start is now.

The equity component can comprise equity funds, balanced funds, index funds, sectoral funds, company stocks or any combination of these – depending on an investors risk tolerance and investing skills. The debt component can comprise PPF, Post Office MIS and other small savings schemes, bank fixed deposits, debt funds or any combination of these – depending on an investor’s risk tolerance and tax bracket.

The importance of the tax bracket should be remembered in choosing the constituents of the debt component. PPF (Public Provident Fund) scheme is available at post offices and banks. It allows an investment of a minimum of Rs 500 upto a maximum of Rs 1 Lakh per year. The entire investment is tax free under Section 80(C) of the Income Tax act. The dividends (around 8.5% per annum) are also tax free. For small investors, it makes sense to utilise the PPF avenue to the limit. The holding period is 15 years – which allows compound interest to work its miracle. Part withdrawals are permitted after 5 years. Investment can be extended beyond 15 years.

Interest on Post Office small savings schemes (7-8% per annum) and bank fixed deposits (8-9% per annum) are taxable. The tax will depend on an individual’s tax bracket. Rs 9000 earned on a Rs 1 Lakh bank fixed deposit will entail a tax of Rs 900/1800/2700 for tax bracket of 10/20/30%. So, the effective return will be 8.1/7.2/6.3% after tax instead of 9%.

For those in the highest tax bracket, and even for others, investment in debt funds – particularly gilt funds – is advisable. Gilt funds mainly invest in government securities, so there is negligible chance of shrinkage in the principle amount invested. Dividends are not taxable in the hands of investors, but the funds pay a dividend tax. Tax is payable at the time of withdrawal and is treated as short-term (for holdings of 1 year or less) or long-term (for holdings beyond 1 year) capital gains tax. Indexation is allowed for long-term capital gains, which can be a great advantage for long period of holding.

Another benefit of a gilt fund over a Post Office/bank fixed deposit is that you can add to or withdraw from your holdings at any time. A couple of gilt funds – IDFC GSF PF regular and Kotak Gilt Investment regular, which gave 12.5% and 14.2% returns over the past 12 months – beat fixed deposit returns comfortably. They may not do so in future, but the Kotak fund has given 10.35% returns since its launch in Dec 1998.

The importance of an asset allocation plan can’t be emphasised more. The most common query received from investors is: “Is this a good time to start buying?” The answer should be provided by the individual investor’s asset allocation plan – not by me!

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