The Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO), the retirement savings manager, may fail to keep its commitment to pay an 8.5% return to its 60 million subscribers in 2019-20 because of the bloodbath on the stock market sparked by investor worries over the impact of the novel coronavirus.
EPFO could not redeem a large portion of its Rs 95,500 crore of investments in exchange traded funds (ETFs) before the equity market went into bear market territory following the World Health Organisation’s March 11 characterisation of the coronavirus as a pandemic, three people with direct knowledge of the matter said.
At the meeting of the Central Board of Trustees (CBT) on March 6, EPFO officials told the apex decision-making body that investments from government securities and bonds would be enough to provide an 8.15% of return to subscribers; the balance 0.35% will be paid by encashing ETFs, the people present in the meeting said. CBT, a statutory body chaired by the labour minister, has representation from the industry and labour unions.
“The assurance of 0.35% on March 6 was on a notional basis as the market was up the previous day, when the agenda for the CBT was circulated,” one of the people said.
The BSE Sensex and the National Stock Exchange’s Nifty on March 5 closed 0.16% up at 38,471 points and 11,269 points, respectively. The market fell 24% between March 6 and March 19. On Thursday, Sensex closed 2.01% down to 28,288 points and the Nifty declined 2.42% to 8,263 points.
Some CBT members said they could not understand most of the agenda items, including returns on investments, for lack of sufficient time and several important issues couldn’t be adequately discussed.
“The agenda was circulated on March 5, a day before the meeting. There were 31 agenda items. The agenda documents ran into three volumes and more than 1,000 pages. It is not humanly possible for anyone to understand financial nuances in just a day and deliberate on these matters in the 3-4 hours meeting,” said CBT member and Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS) general secretary Harbhajan Singh Sidhu.
People present at the meeting confirmed that the lack of sufficient time to devote to matters on the agenda was raised at the CBT meeting and labour minister Santosh Kumar Gangwar assured members that the agenda would be distributed to them 15 days in advance of future meetings.
Spokespersons for the labour and finance ministries, Gangwar, and EPFO financial adviser Hemant Jain did not respond to queries sent to them by HT.
The government cannot reduce the interest rate decided on March 6, said Virjesh Upadhyay, a CBT member and general secretary of the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS).
“CBT has already taken a decision based on the fund we have and that decision is final,” said Upadhyay, who was , not present at the March 6 meeting.
The rate of return EPFO pays it subscribers needs to be approved by the finance ministry to become effective.
Sidhu said the administration of EPFO needs to be streamlined and CBT members should be given detailed presentations before they take a final call on important matters.
It was only in 2015 that the labour ministry allowed EPFO to invest in equity while capping the exposure at between 5% and 15% of its corpus . The CBT, on March 31, 2015, decided to invest 5% of EPFO’s total annual investments in ETFs of Nifty-50 and Sensex; the actual investment started on August 5 that year. The exposure to ETFs was raised to 10% on September 12, 2016 and 15% on May 27, 2017, a government official said, requesting anonymity.