But if you need more bang for your buck, it makes more sense to shell out a little more and go in for a new car
A second-hand Mercedes-Benz, not over six years old, with a six-month manufacturer’s warranty added on. That’s the deal that Mercedes-Benz India is offering, at indicative prices which are typically around half or less than half the price of a new car, with variations for usage and model year, as well as condition. All this, sold through existing Mercedes-Benz dealerships, in addition to the new cars on offer there. Making this announcement, Wilfred Aulbur, the CEO and managing director of Mercedes-Benz India Ltd (MBIL), took a small step up for Indians who already have a vast choice of new and used cars, and a large jump down for Mercedes-Benz—from a perch occupied for decades now on the perceived proposition that buying aMercedes-Benz car in India was an experience unlike buying any other car.
Sounds very good. A star in my drive for half the cost, that too, with a manufacturer-backed warranty. So what if it is old and used, and the technology that was state-of-the-art five years ago is already obsolete in new generation cars costing a fraction of the amount? I am an Indian, and I should consider myself lucky, in being allowed to place the famous 3-pointed star in or outside my home. At least, that’s the attitude, in large doses, which one gets at every interaction with Mercedes-Benz in India.
If nothing else, this gives potential owners of Mercedes-Benz cars in India a very good idea of what the resale value and depreciation will be, going forward. But first, before going forward—a wee bit of history, and why this attitude from a manufacturer of cars, which elsewhere in the world are slowly fitting into a slot often known as “utilitarian”—apart from the top-of-the-line show models, which in any case usually don’t make it to Third World countries—unless destined for the dictator or ruler.
Mercedes-Benz cars have had a favoured run as the ultimate in aspiration for luxury in post-Independence India. One reason for this was the excellent relationship that TELCO, forerunner to Tata Motors, had with the powers that be. This rubbed off on to its international truck partner, Mercedes-Benz, who were the collaborators with TELCO after a deal with the French fell through. The other reason was that it was certainly made difficult for any of the other luxury foreign automobiles to establish a beachhead in India, courtesy a particular well-connected Kashmiri gentleman, who was also in those days very close to the powers that be.
So, along with a restrictive import policy, it was not very uncommon to see that second-hand Mercedes-Benz cars often achieved a price higher than that of a new car—when released into the market through STC, or as and when the original importing owners were permitted to resell the cars—or sold them in ‘benami’ transactions anyway. This happened right up to as recently as the mid-‘90s. And of course, how could these transactions take place without help from the various dealers, authorised as well as otherwise, for such imported cars?
Cut to the future, 15 years later, and take stock of the horizon with about 30,000 Mercedes-Benz cars sold since MBIL started assembling and manufacturing cars and vans in India. Competition is fierce and free-ranging, and from Germany alone both Audi and BMW are offering not just newer and fresher products, but also aggressive pricing as well as that which all seekers search for—more bang. Mercedes-Benz on the other hand ends up carrying this staid reputation, which would have been fine if all the potential buyers and users of luxury cars were above 50 years old, but that’s not true anymore either. Prices of some models of the lower-end luxury cars are now really low—if you search hard enough—and that’s not surprising considering the way the same cars are stacked up against Japanese and South Korean brands in the international market.
But most of all, nobody has any idea any more of how much of any car, luxury or otherwise, is now made from parts and components coming largely out of China—but could also be from anywhere else. Which does not in any way reflect on the quality of the end product, but certainly makes one think—if a brand new car from any of the other countries is available at the same price as a five-year old Mercedes in the same bracket, then which would be a better choice?
In addition, please be aware, rapidly-changing regulations for new generation fuels—BS Stage IV is now a fact in the larger cities and soon going to spread—is going to create problems which were not even envisaged when these cars were designed. And this is not going to be easy to fix, either—there are multiple complex issues involved, especially with complex car engines, which no amount of local tinkering will resolve.
So, while the price may sound attractive, the fact remains—it may make more sense to go the extra yard, spend double the money, and buy something new, and here the choice is much wider now. Or it may make sense to spend the same amount of money, and look at different brands. After all, ‘new’ also means that you can be sure that your luxury car today was not somebody’s private taxi yesterday.
And if you must have a star in the drive, then something which was new about 10-15 years ago is often available for a price which even your scrap merchant may match—and that’s the truth too.
The changes may have been cosmetic and won’t rock the boat of insurance companies
The Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority (IRDA) introduced sweeping changes in Unit-linked Insurance Plans (ULIPs) yesterday. Among the measures are-a five year lock-in, even-out commission over the first five years and graded charges for the subsequent years.
How will these changes affect ULIPs? Are they competitive now with mutual funds (MFs) as long-term products? Nothing has really changed for the investors.
All IRDA has insisted is that the fat commissions, which insurance companies were paying, would have to be spread over five years. Insurance companies were doling out upfront commission as high as 30%-35% to distributors in the first year.
They will now have to spread this commission over the five-year lock-in period. But this will put off distributors used to making a fat upfront income. "It's not attractive for distributors anymore," said a top official from a fund house. He points out that for mutual fund investors, there is no entry load. If you invest Rs1,000, you will get units equivalent to Rs1,000. Considering a commission of 6% in ULIPs for the first year, if you invest Rs1,000 in a ULIP, your investment will be worth Rs940 after deducting the 6% expenses.
The insurance regulator has attempted to cap the charges at 4% annually for 5 years, and 3% for 5-10 years and 2.25% for products of above 10 year terms.
These are more expensive than mutual funds. The total maximum permissible expense for a mutual fund stands at 2.5% on the first Rs100 crore of the average weekly net assets collected by the fund. This is then reduced to 2.25% for the next Rs300 crore, 2% on the subsequent Rs300 crore corpus, which finally comes down to 1.75% for the balance assets. The expenses consist of Investment Management & Advisory fee (1.25%); Custodial fees (0.05%); Registrar & Transfer Agent (RTA) fee (0.25%); marketing expenses including commission paid to distributors (0.65%); Audit fees (0.10%); Costs of fund transfer from location to location (0.10%) and other expenses (0.10%).
Moneylife contributor R Balakrishnan says, "The ULIP changes are cosmetic in nature. Maybe the product becomes a little more efficient than it used to be, but in no way has it become comparable to a mutual fund. In a mutual fund, the total damage is limited by law to 2.50% per annum. In ULIPs, the selling commission has not been reduced. The only thing that has happened is that instead of front ending, it is now supposed to be spread evenly. In effect, a marginal improvement."
Some industry experts believe that ULIP charges will still be opaque and can differ from company to company. Insurance companies can still charge a lot of money to investors under the garb of administration and management expenses.
Mr Balakrishnan pointed out that in all investment products of the insurance industry, "There is a management charge, administration charge and some other charges. Typically, these aggregate over 3% per year, assuming a typical monthly investment of say Rs20,000 per month. These charges are separately deducted from the contribution paid by the customer."
He added, "ULIPs are the sole survival mechanism for the insurance industry. And they are perhaps the biggest prop for the stock markets. The government just does not want to rock the boat. Hence they have legitimised what they have been doing."
Insurers are gearing up for a number of changes in the way they sell ULIPs after the new norms passed by the insurance regulator
While the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority's (IRDA) new norms for Unit-linked Insurance Plans (ULIPs) are good for consumers, private insurers are protesting that they could see the end of the product and they will sink into the red again or remain loss-making. They fear that agents would prefer to sell traditional plans since ULIPs would turn less attractive. Interestingly, some even fear that stricter rules may spell the death of ULIPs, which have been their biggest product in the past five years. Were this to happen, it would spell another important turning point in the insurance industry.
While most insurers contacted by Moneylife were guarded or positive in their public response to IRDA's new rules, some have refused to respond and claim they are still studying the implications. "On the face of it, the impact of these guidelines on customers is favourable, with lower charges, guaranteed returns, etc. In the medium to long run, these changes could seriously impact choice of investment options to customers, restrict product design & innovation, increase new business strain and call for increased capital requirements for insurers-thus impacting the profitability of insurers," said Deepak Sood, managing director and chief executive officer, Future Generali India Life Insurance Co Ltd.
Insurers believe that IRDA's new guidelines will affect their bottom lines. The say that capping of the charge structure will restrict the product portfolio and its flexibility. "Our bottom lines will be affected negatively and gradually even our top lines. With such norms, how does IRDA expect us to protect the policyholder's money?" asked an official from Bajaj Allianz Life Insurance.
"These changes are likely to have significant impact on product mix, distribution mix and cost structures of the industry. The timeline for implementation of these changes is very aggressive," said Rajesh Sud, chief executive officer and managing director, Max New York Life Insurance.
"In line with expectations, capping of charges will impact margins adversely. With limited product differentiation, having a low and variable cost business model will be critical. This, in turn, will lead to cost-cutting across the sector, impacting distributor commissions adversely," said an analyst from Edelweiss Securities Limited. According to Edelweiss, the capping of surrender charges is being considered a bigger blow than the cap imposed on the difference between gross and net yields, as it would not only restrict the ability to generate revenue, but also raise the persistency risk borne by the insurers.
"Secondly, the commission structure can't sustain an agent's income; (the) agency channel will suffer badly. I hope we don't land up in a situation where the product is very good but no one is willing to sell it," said Kamesh Goyal, Bajaj Allianz Life Insurance country manager and chief executive officer.
A Reliance Life Insurance official, who spoke to Moneylife on the condition of anonymity, said that the insurance companies would also now shift their focus to selling more traditional plans. In fact, during the turf war between SEBI and IRDA, where insurance companies were banned from coming up with new ULIP products, insurers started coming out with more traditional plans. He says that the plans would now look more traditional then ULIPs.
"We understand that IRDA is simultaneously coming out with treatment of discontinuance-linked insurance policies. Under these regulations, the insurer will not be able to recover the incurred expenses (particularly under large value policies) fully as the regulator has prescribed the limits of discontinuance charges not only by percentage of annualised premium, but also in absolute value," Mr Sood added.
Probably the thorniest issue for insurers is the stipulation that all pension products should guarantee a return of 4.5% to protect the lifetime savings from adverse fluctuation at the time of maturity. Insurers believe that this would not be possible for a long-term product and investments in ULIPs will now go to safer outlets like debt and securities where the yields are low.
"Because of the guarantee structure being introduced in pension plans, insurers will now play safe, as they can't invest in equities, which means the upside is lost as everything is invested in securities and debts," the official from Reliance said, adding that ULIPs will now become more of an endowment plan.
GN Agarwal, Future Generali's chief actuary feels that there will be a drastic impact on the industry. According to him, more than 50% of ULIPs will be withdrawn from insurance companies and nearly all pension plans linked with ULIPs will be withdrawn. He went on to add that insurance companies whose revenues were solely based on ULIPs would be severely affected. He added, "They (the new norms) are too restrictive and pension products will be hit a lot, it would almost be impossible for life insurers to guarantee 4.5% on a long-term insurance product."
Insurers in the past have maintained that insurance must be sold on a commission-based model and are marketed on mutual relations. Nearly 80% of ULIPs are sold in rural and semi-urban parts of India. Life India Council's secretary general SB Mathur has said in the past, "Most of these sales are relationship-based, where it is very awkward for an agent to charge his client for doing his work."
The new framework reduces agent commissions considerably as insurers would now have to ensure that they can charge their customers 4% of the annual premium paid. Agents selling ULIPs will be less motivated and they may shift to selling traditional plans like endowment plans, as commissions are higher. The commissions for selling traditional plans are still 30% to 35% in the first year; in the second and third years the commissions is 7.5%; from the fourth year onwards, the commission is 5% for a 15-year policy.
However, one must note that the move of capping charges by IRDA does comes as a surprise, especially when its chairman, J Hari Narayan, in the early weeks of June, came out in support of insurance agents and the commission given to them as he felt that it would bring about smooth functioning for the distribution of insurance, at an event in Mumbai. He had said, "With the kind of sustained activity, which an insurance agent has to undertake, the number of times he has to meet a prospect before a sale can be concluded and the kind of post-sales service that he has to provide for the insurance holder, a commission-based model is necessary. The remuneration (to agents) is not excessive; there cannot be a lower-cost method for distribution."
ULIPs are hybrid products that combine elements of investment and insurance, and have been a big investment magnet for insurance companies. According to the Life Insurance Council of India, an industry body representing 23 life insurers, of the Rs2,00,000 crore-plus life insurance premium collected in the first 11 months of 2009-10, more than Rs91,000 crore came from ULIPs.
The new guidelines have increased the lock-in period for ULIPs from three to five years mainly to ensure that they become a long-term insurance product rather than a short-term investment option. During this period, no residuary payments on lapsed, surrendered or discontinued policies will be made. Top-up on insurance premiums will now be treated as a single premium, meaning that every top-up that one makes will have to have an additional insurance cover backing it as well.