SEBI succeeds in curbing ULIP threat to Mutual Funds
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14 May 2010Anshuman Jaswal
The Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), India's capital market regulator has succeeded in achieving its underlying objective in the recent row with the insurance regulator, Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority (IRDA). The removal of the front-load commissions for mutual funds by SEBI in mid-2009 had led to an environment in which the mutual funds were at a disadvantage against the insurance companies’ unit linked insurance plans (ULIPs), which had a large investment component. For ULIPs, the commissions for the agents continued to be high, at times more than 40% for the initial installments. As a result, there was mis-selling (over-selling and resorting to unfair practices) on part of the insurance agents. By raising the issue of its role in the regulation of the investment component of the ULIPs, SEBI ensured that the IRDA was forced to take action to prevent SEBI from encroaching into its domain of insurance regulation. In the end, IRDA had to increase the insurance component of ULIPs and also to create disincentives for people who were investing in ULIPs for a period of less than five years. Also, the commission structure of ULIPs had to become more transparent to prevent mis-selling. The two main beneficiaries of this action have been the mutual funds that have regained their pre-eminence as a tool for investment, and the consumers who are enjoying more transparency in ULIPs than earlier, albeit at the cost of fewer choices, as the ULIPs are no longer directly competing with mutual funds. There are some important issues that have been raised by this entire episode. The main one is that there needs to be a redressal mechanism through which the regulators can solve problems with each other. The ULIP episode has been a highly long-drawn public affair that caused a lot of confusion for the investors and companies alike. The insurance companies’ revenues due to ULIPs will also suffer as there would be less investment in them now. Furthermore, the episode does not reflect well on the reputations of the regulators or the Ministry of Finance. There were contradictory signals coming from the ministry as the Finance Minister referred the matter to the courts, but the his Minister for State supported the IRDA’s case in a written reply to the Upper House. The early stage of development of financial regulation in India means that there will be more turf wars. The government is possibly trying to create the infrastructure for their quick resolution through the creation of the Financial Stability and Development Council (FSDC). Whether it is through the FSDC or some other means, it is important to lay down clear guidelines to be followed. Otherwise the Indian financial markets would more and more resemble the Wild West, entertaining for sure, but too chaotic to make sense of. This issue has been dealt with in greater detail in a recent Celent report: Capital Market Regulation in India: Turf Wars Inevitable?