Dawn at dusk
As the building blocks of the government’s New Pension System fall into place, there is change on the anvil even at India’s largest private sector pension fund— the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation. Indians may finally be on their way to getting some semblance of social security.
Nineteen state governments, too, have promised to join the NPS. For governments creaking under ballooning pension liabilities, the NPS will go a long way in reducing the burden, besides providing employees better returns on their mandatory savings. For EPFO, too, similar forces are at play.
Better returns to workers is, however, just one reason why pension management in the country needs sweeping reforms. Inadequate coverage is another. Of the more than 321 million paid workers (in the age group of 18-59 years) in India, a bare 37 million are covered under any pension scheme. For the rest, retirement is not really an option. In fact, even for those with pension, not working isn’t an option because of the value of their accumulated savings doesn’t beat inflation, as pension funds (at least the EPFO’s) only get invested in debt instruments; but more on that in a bit. The vast majority has to keep working to ensure a monthly income. There are ways in which such workers can be brought under a pension scheme (see Cover for the Uncovered). Meanwhile, it’s the existing pension schemes that are getting a makeover. Let’s start with EPFO.
Come September (hopefully), the EPFO’s corpus will be managed by not one fund manager (State Bank of India) but multiple ones. Why? A. Viswanathan, Central Provident Fund Commissioner, EPFO, says the decision stems from a need for comparative monitoring of the investment performance and improvement in returns. “Even if we earn about 10-15 basis points more, it is a good return for our stakeholders,” he says. EPFO’s rate of return follows an administered rate— it was 8.5 per cent for 2006-07.
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Given its predilection for debt, what is the reason for the EPFO to be seeking multiple fund managers? After all, the fund managers will continue to invest in fixed income instruments. Does the arrival of the New Pension Scheme—an alternate pension system that comprises the defined contributions of government servants (barring defence forces) who joined service after January 1, 2004—have something to do with the speed of work? Viswanathan merely says: “I look forward to the setting up of the NPS.” That is likely to be the case.
The NPS will allow fresh wind to blow even in the moribund EPFO office. The organisation for years has been accused of not catering to its chief constituency. In over 55 years of its existence, it covers only 444,464 establishments and has a membership of 40 million.It seems like a large number till you consider that a country like Malaysia, which has a population of 24 million, has a similar number of establishments in the country’s Employees’ Provident Fund scheme. For years, the EPFO in India has been plagued by high premature withdrawals, high costs, complicated and inefficient administration, among other things. So certainly, appointing multiple fund managers seems like a step forward, even though a small one in this vast journey.
Numbers of note
The technical and financial bids of the 17 short-listed bidders are expected to be in by mid-June. And the EPFO says it is moving fast on the issue. It intends to select maybe three managers for an initial period of two years. And it is the cream of the crop ranging from ICICI Prudential, BNP Paribas, Reliance Capital to several more that is in competition. “We intend to transfer the funds to the pension fund managers by September,” says Viswanathan.
In the meantime, a small beginning has been made on what were steadily bloating government pension liabilities. Recruits into the central government service from January 1, 2004 onwards have moved to the defined contribution pension scheme. This was a major departure from the defined benefit scheme, which was prevalent till then. The earlier scheme merely fixed the pensions benefits that one continued to receive through old age, whereas the new scheme requires fixed monthly contributions, which then lead to market-linked returns at retirement.
And the returns are likely to be an improvement on the 8 per cent that the government was assuring. An added advantage has been the fund management fee of 3-5 basis points of assets under management— a far cry from at least 2 per cent and more charged by mutual funds and insurance companies. However, there is more to come.
According to the World Bank, a multiplicity of solutions needs to be incorporated in the design of the pension systems.
Zero pillar: A noncontributory social pension that provides a minimal level of protection
First pillar: A contributory pension that is linked to earnings and seeks to replace a portion of the income
Second pillar: Mandatory, almost like an individual’s savings account
Third pillar: Voluntary arrangements that can take many forms (individual, employer-sponsored, defined benefit, defined contribution) but are essentially flexible and discretionary in nature
The CRA will provide portability to the users across jobs and locations, choice of pension funds and investment schemes, freedom to switch between service providers and capping these services with an annual statement. Hence, the subscriber will also have nationwide access of CRA system through Internet and toll-free telephone number. CRA will also provide an online platform to the subscribers for logging grievances and viewing their resolution.
That apart, CRA will record compliance of mandatory contributions by governments, ensure efficient and timely transfers between fund managers, and capture errors in transfers. And it will charge an annual fee of Rs 350 for its services.
Ajay Shah, senior fellow at Delhibased think tank National Institute for Public Finance and Policy (NIPFP), believes that in scale and breadth of its attempt, the NPS is similar to the revolution that occurred in the equity markets between 1994 and 2001. However, he cautions: “The challenge in NPS is to deliver on the promises that have been made.”
And that in itself is a gargantuan task. At present, even as the NSDL’s system has been tested and is ready to run, no individual data has been transferred by the government to the NSDL or the fund managers. There are concerns that the data of contributions of government employees joining after January 1, 2004 is neither complete nor clear. “Nobody knows names, contributions, account balances for all these employees. It’s going to be a real struggle to catch up with this past,” says NIPFP’s Shah, adding that in some other countries, efforts at eating into such a backlog have floundered, resulting in a big mess.
How pension reforms could help
It will improve returns and unlock capital.
Even as PFRDA Chariman D. Swarup is confident of an equitable treatment for the NPS, IIEF’s Bhardwaj points out that there is merit in EET treatment. “Since EET is a consumption tax, it encourages a smoother consumption pattern in old age and is more likely to ensure that the elderly do not end up splurging their savings.”
True, NPS is the big hope as far as providing social security to vast swathes of Indian population is concerned. And as IIEF’s Bhardwaj says: “No pension system is perfect on Day One.” He believes that the NPS offers identical rights, low costs and high returns to all sections of the social network as it puts a civil servant on par with the informal sector employee.
The existing pension systems are far from perfect.
Cover for the uncovered
Indeed. And there is a huge pent-up demand for pension products. There are more than 80 million workers who see the need for, and value of, a voluntary contributory retirement savings system. This is roughly four times the estimated 20 million people who are currently saving for their retirement in life insurance and other financial products. “If the latent demand for pensions from these groups were fully harnessed, Indian workers could contribute an estimated Rs 57,000 crore to the NPS in the first full year of operations and that number is estimated to increase to Rs 12,03,538 crore by 2019-20. Up to a fifth of these workers (16 million) we believe are prime prospects and likely to start saving for their retirement as soon as appropriate products are offered to them,” says the Invest India Dataworks Income and Saving Survey 2007.
This latent demand is also visible in some private organisations combining pension benefits with ESOPs to retain employees. “Companies have been rolling in some punch into the employee pension schemes as part of their retention strategy, where deferred benefits are sought to be given to employees as part of their overall package,” says Sanjay Aggarwal, National Industry Director, Financial Services, KPMG.
In fact, in times to come, companies will increasingly look at pension options as part of overall employee packages, especially in infrastructure and real estate sectors, where projects take time to fructify. However, as K.P. Kannan, member of National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector, points out: “Currently, neither the EPFO nor the NPS deals with unorganised workers.” Especially at the bottom of the pyramid. What exists for them is a form of old age pension that does not depend on their work status. For example, under Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme (IGNOAPS), Rs 200 per month per beneficiary is provided by way of central assistance to a person who is 65 years or older and belonging to a household below the poverty line. Notwithstanding government initiatives, there seem to be other interesting efforts too.
For instance, some 30,000 SEWA Bank members in Ahmedabad joined the scheme last year. They pooled together over Rs 2.2 crore to invest for their pension requirements in the UTI scheme. This underscores yet again the latent demand for pension products. “We were also surprised to see that women who earn such low incomes were keen to save for such a long term. There is a huge demand; the question is how to reach it,” says Renana Jhabvala, National Coordinator, Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA).“There is no single button that can be pressed and the poor then line up for support,” says Ashish Aggarwal, Executive Director, Invest India Micro Pension Services, adding that addressing them through groups is a viable option. Low delivery costs have to be buttressed by high returns for the poor, since even when they save for long periods of time, they often do not save enough for them to live above poverty in their old age. Here, people like Jhabvala and Aggarwal believe the government could step in with a co-contribution to make the effort worthwhile. The good news is that there are some good signs here (see Rajasthan’s Co-contribution Pension Scheme). Perhaps, instead of wasting money in unproductive schemes that don’t benefit the poor, the government should consider this route to reach its much-vaunted goal of inclusive growth.
Rajasthan’s co-contribution pension scheme
The scheme, of course, excludes the agriculture occupations, small and marginal farmers and the workers who benefit from other pension schemes. The state government would match the amount contributed by the workers with the highest limit of Rs 1,000 per worker per year. Launched on 1st Sept., 2007, the scheme currently has 5,069 workers within its fold but state labour secretary Lalit K. Panwar expects around 60,000 workers to be enrolled by end of the current financial.
The state has set aside Rs 50 lakh for 2008-09. “We are in the process of short-listing the public financial institutions where the contributions would be accepted,” he says, adding that there will be no budgetary constraints for this open-ended scheme. In the interim, the whole contribution of the workers as well as that of the government will be credited into interest-bearing public account. Initially, the interest being paid is 8 per cent on the combined contributions. Eventually, the corpus will be invested in accordance to pension sector guidelines by pension fund managers. Invest India Micro Pension Services, jointly owned by SEWA Bank, UTI Mutual Fund and other pension experts, is the implementation agency for the scheme. The whole record of the pensioners would be maintained by the central record-keeping agency that will shortly be appointed broadly along the lines of the New Pension Scheme.
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