At a time when the stock market is scaling new peaks, the small investor has been staying away. Brokers are shutting their retail broking divisions and many retail investors are closing their mutual fund (MF) folios.
Retail investors' equity MF assets have dropped 30 per cent in the past three years, while nearly a fourth of MF portfolios were closed last year, shows data from the Association of Mutual Funds in India. HSBC Direct and India Infoline are shutting their retail broking division.
Whatever happened to the retail investor? Why are stock and equity-fund investors shying away from the market, instead of staying and seeing their portfolios grow?
Experts say it's a case of once bitten, twice shy. Over the past few years since the Lehman crisis, many stocks were hit badly, especially infrastructure and old economy stocks, where small investors were largely invested.
Investors are losing faith in equities, because the markets haven't really gone anywhere for last three to four years. Volatility in the market coupled with instability in the rupee acted like a double whammy.
Hence, many investors simply decided to move out not only MS but stocks as well.
Samiksha and Lavish are among such investors. Samiksha Mishra, 35, started pulling out of stocks from 2011 and sold a third of her holdings after they began to regain lost value. Her portfolio was down 80 per cent after the financial crisis, as much of it was in infrastructure and other capital-intensive businesses. Now, as these are beginning to rise again, Mishra is taking the opportunity to exit stocks, altogether. "I decided to slowly start exiting from all my equity holdings. I can't take losses and so have decided to preserve my portfolio and have shifted most it into fixed deposits," she says. She has made decent profits and hence decided to exit at this point in time.
Most retail investors are in a similar predicament, pondering whether to stay in equities or switch to fixed income products. Equity returns have been erratic these past few years and the recent rally is concentrated in a few segments such as information technology (IT) and pharmaceuticals. Data crunched by BS Research shows nearly 80 per cent of the stocks are still trading below their 2008 peaks. Only 562 of 2,500 stocks are above their highs.
Despite the rally, small investors who bought in the heady days of the 2008 boom have not broken even on their investments, forget making a profit. Experts say as these losses are still on their books and on their minds, despite the fact that markets are near their all-time highs, many investors are wanting out. "Investors are moving out because they are sitting on losses and they have a difficulty in accepting further losses. If one finds underperforming stocks in their portfolio, they should check what went wrong with these and if required move to better performing stocks," says Debashish Mallick, chief executive at IDBI MF.
It's typical of equity investors to often hold on to losing positions for too long or sit on cash that should be invested in good quality stocks. That's because losses hurt and investors are not used to seeing red in their portfolio. So, at the slightest sign of green in their portfolio, investors begin to exit equities. But they'd do well to remember that stock markets move in cycles and because of this, different industries tend to do well at different points in time. If infrastructure is doing well due to very low interest rates in 2008, IT and pharma are doing well now as a lower rupee improves their bottom line. So, how can retail investors get their mojo back?
Stop chasing relative short-term returns: Most investors are moving out of equity into debt products as interest rates have risen, say market watchers. While the nearly nine per cent tax-free return does sound attractive when equities were beaten down, investors must remember that equities are also tax-free if held for over a year.
Keeping a long-term horizon: Experts say while investing in equities, make sure you keep a long-term horizon. When one invests in fixed income products, there are lock-in periods or we typically know when the product will mature and be ready for withdrawal. Since equity stocks can be held for years together, there is no exact time when you know you want to exit from it. However, if investment is linked to a particular goal (e.g child's education/marriage, retirement, etc), one should exit when nearing that goal. Hence, make sure you have a horizon long enough to give your investments time to grow.
Not exiting equities abruptly: "One is always surrounded with news, whether good or bad. Keeping a track of your stock and news related to your stock is a very good habit. However, one should learn to analyse a situation and not panic if there are negative sentiments in the market. And, most important, not panic and exit from your investments abruptly," says Rajesh Saluja, managing director and chief executive officer, ASK Wealth Advisors.
Rebalancing portfolio regularly: It's very important to keep checking your portfolio on a regular basis. One cannot invest in a set of stocks and revisit these only at the time of wishing to sell. The process of rebalancing helps you return your portfolio to its target asset allocation as outlined in your investment plan. It can be tedious because you will be forced to sell some underperforming stocks and replace these with stocks which would have attractive valuation at that point. You would have to study stocks' past performance to get a clearer sense.
Not expecting unrealistic returns: While there is nothing wrong in expecting your portfolio to return well, one should know what kind of returns one's stocks can give, based on historical data. Experts say in volatile markets, any returns that beat real inflation and the returns given by fixed deposits should be considered as an investment returned well. Hence, stick to your investment plan and rebalance whenever needed, instead of simply chasing unrealistic returns.
Retail investors exit the market either prematurely or enter at the latter stages of a bull run. This exacerbates their losses and reflects a lack of understanding of how markets function. Says Debashish Mallick, chief executive, IDBI MF: "Stocks do move up or down but if you have done your job well, stocks do well over the long run ."
Invest regularly: You can invest regularly, rejig your portfolio to the companies that are performing well and keep your sights on the long-term goals. Stocks eventually do well, provided you've done your homework and have invested in the right stocks for the long haul, say experts. Says Apoorva Shah, executive vice-president & fund manager (equity), DSP BlackRock MF: "Investors are making a mistake by exiting at this stage. First, they invest in MFs by looking at one or two-year returns, which is not right. They should look at a longer period to get a better sense."
Look for value: Stock valuations are also at their lows. Most banking stocks are available at dividend yields of seven to eight per cent. Dividends are tax-free in the hands of investors. The Sensex is currently trading at a price to earnings (PE) multiple of 18.27 times, whereas in the previous peak of 2008, it was trading at 28.51 times.
Besides, historically, it's been seen that equities tend to outperform fixed income in the long run, though they are volatile in the short run. "Markets are set to perform better as earnings have improved after many years of sluggish growth. Hence, one should stay invested and take calculative decisions and not panic in such situations," adds Shah of DSP BlackRock.
Invest in parts: Investors should not invest a lump sum all at once. Instead, they should divide their investment corpus in four or five parts and invest gradually over three to six months or longer. This will reduce the volatility in your portfolio, as you can accumulate stocks over a longer period. It can also help reduce your mistakes. The recent past has been anything but pleasant and there will surely be mistakes when investing in stocks. Some of the savviest investors have made plenty of mistakes. "But the bigger mistake some retail investors are making now is by staying out of the market and not allowing their profits to run," adds Saluja of ASK Wealth.