Index Funds Finally Get Some Love in India

I must say, I was pleased to see the headline in the Economic Times talking about investing in index funds (article link). And really shocked they mentioned an allocation of 25% to passive index funds. When people ask me for investment advice, I usually roll out the passive index fund speech and literally with 14 seconds people just tune out. Why? Because passive index funds (or ETFs) are boring to talk about.

It’s more exciting to talk about some hot-shot fund manager that someone has found that can outperform the markets. Remember Prashant Jain of HDFC who had the HDFC Top 200? Years ago, he WAS the talk of the town and basically was the hot shot who ran one of the best performing mutual funds. But, it was renamed Top 100 and the fund is still struggling with performance. The reason is because as a fund gets bigger and bigger they need to deploy that money and finding opportunities that outperform the general market are tougher to find.

I remember an investment professional once told me that index funds don’t work in emerging markets like India. That is absolutely garage. Most financial advisors and anyone on CNBC-TV18 will never talk about index funds or ETFs because the commissions are so low. Did you know the largest mutual fund in India is the SBI – ETF Nifty 50 at over Rs. 51,800 Cr. and the expense ratio is only 7 bps that is friggin’ crazy talk.

The tide is turning and more people are looking at these passive index funds because if you are not actively tracking the market then these instruments are great. Investing in a passive index fund is a general bet that the market/economy will do well and that’s pretty much the future of India.

Making it For India

A couple of months ago the streaming music service Spotify was launched in India with great fanfare. I had tried Spotify about 7 or 8 years back but then they started to block IP addresses from India so I quit using the app. At first I wasn’t planning to try it again but I did and I’m so glad I did, their recommendations are spot on…no pun intended.

What really caught my attention during the launch was their pricing matrix. Yes, the monthly price is cheaper in India Rs. 119 (USD$1.70) vs the US at Rs. 693 (USD$9.99). But they also offered daily packs at Rs. 13 (USD$0.18) and weekly packs at Rs. 39 (USD$0.56) as well, almost like the FMCGs offer sachet packs of their products. Sachets – a single-use, a simple flat pouch or stick pack for powders and other runny liquids and gels.

Spotify took that concept and turned it into a digital sachet. It’s a great way to get people to try the product. This is a great example of localization of a product.

When building an app or platform and going to other markets, there is always talk about internationalization (i18n) and localization (l10n) within the technology team. 7 or 8 years ago foreign companies would sell their products in India and only focus on internationalization. For example, if an app requires a login via a phone number then they enable +91 for Indian mobile numbers.

But the trend is to go one step further and localize the app or platform for the Indian market. And that is where Spotify just nailed it with it’s very Indian pricing matrix. I’m seeing more and more companies localize for the Indian markets because that’s where the growth is as other markets are mature and growth has slowed or stalled.

UPDATE: I’ve received many emails about the confusion about internationalization and localization. For me and the teams I work with, I break it down as:

internationalization – the backend technology to enable the use of the app or platform in another country. For example: language, phone numbers, etc…

localization – the frontend that the consumer will see and you. For example: pricing, localized content, specific features for a country, etc…