ETFs in India

WhatsApp Image 2018-09-05 at 2.01.32 PM

A cousin of mine who is pretty savvy with the stock market sent the above WhatsApp message to me. I was a bit surprised he had no idea about index ETFs, then it dawned on me. ETFs are like the stepchild of the Indian investing world…no one wants to talk about them.

First of all, ETF is an acronym for exchange-traded funds. So what is an ETF? I’ll let Investopedia explain:

An ETF is a marketable security that tracks an index, a commodity, bonds, or a basket of assets like an index fund. Unlike mutual funds, an ETF trades like a common stock on a stock exchange.

Think of it as a basket of stocks that trade throughout the day. Mutual funds are similar but they only trade at the end of the day.

I personally think ETFs are a great investment vehicle for people that want exposure to the equity markets but have no clue. Even when you pick a mutual fund, you need to know about the fund house, the manager, the investment thesis, etc… By picking one of the Nifty or Sensex ETFs you are essentially saying I want to participate in the equity markets and I’m betting on the growth of the India story.

For the longest time, the mutual fund of choice was the HDFC Top 200 managed by Prashant Jain. It recently got renamed to the HDFC Top 100 with total AUM (assets under management) of around Rs. 16,000 cr (USD 2.4 billion). HDFC Top 100 and Prashant Jain were like the Fidelity Magellan fund in the US and Peter Lynch, they could do no wrong. But over time they stumbled and started to lose their sheen. That’s where an index ETF instrument is great because you are not betting on a sector, company, region, etc…you are betting on the entire country. If you don’t believe in India, then you got bigger problems.

The ETF fund I always recommend to people is the SBI Nifty ETF, as the name implies it tracks the Nifty index. The fund has about Rs. 41,000 cr (USD 5.9 billion) in assets and it’s the largest ETF or mutual fund in India by AUM. More important than AUM, is the total expense ratio (TER) of the fund and this one is 0.06%, which is very, very low. Compare that to the HDFC Top 100 which has a TER of 2.21% (almost 37 times of the SBI Nifty ETF).

ETFs by design have a low TER and it’s one of the reasons you will never hear about ETFs on CNBC-18…there is not enough money to be made if you are an advisor. Just look at the numbers above comparing the TERs of the SBI Nifty ETF to the HDFC Top 100 fund. It’s similar to fixed deposits (FDs), your financial advisor or wealth advisor will NEVER talk about FDs because they make no money on them and in fact that money is blocked from investing in other products.

I would highly encourage anyone that is looking to diversify their portfolio to look at index ETFs as a simple and inexpensive way to access the Indian equity markets. Then as you gain confidence in the equity markets you can look at investing in mutual funds and then finally move to picking stocks based on your own research. Just start.