Think before making changes
Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF) scheme members concerned by current returns may be tempted to tinker with their fund choices and look around for better prospects, but experts caution against such short-term thinking.
'If investors have given sufficient thought to their fund selection and strategy, they shouldn't need to react to the current period of volatility by buying and selling too much,' says Philip Tso, director of investment services for consultancy firm Towers Watson. 'Markets are very sensitive right now, but we have had other crises in the past 15 years and have always seen things recover after a downturn.'
In his view, the chance of no material gains on well-planned MPF portfolios over, say, the next five years is slim indeed. European economies may still be suffering, but Asia is showing resilience and the United States appears to be on the right track, so opportunities for growth are there. Some ups and downs must be expected as just part of the usual investment landscape.
One thing Tso does suggest, though, in the present climate is taking a closer look at fixed-income and bond choices available under the MPF structure.
'If you are worried about the volatility of equities, this is probably the way to go, especially if looking at a relatively shorter investment horizon. Fixed income may not give a [better return] every year, but people may find it easier to sleep at night.'
He notes too that the planned introduction of employee choice arrangement (ECA) later this year will be a logical point at which to conduct a full review of one's MPF strategy and options. Ideally, this should consider annual performance to date, a comparison of similar and alternative funds available from other providers and, of course, the different level of fees charged.
'The majority of people have stuck with their original strategy from day one,' Tso says. 'But ECA should encourage individuals to take a more active interest in where their own contributions are invested.'
In the overall context of there being 2.5 million MPF account holders, he does not expect this to trigger a massive switch of holdings between providers or, for example, from equity to bond funds. It will, though, represent an important step in terms of giving investors greater personal responsibility and flexibility of choice.
That said, the aspect of having more options to choose from is not an automatic plus point. For instance, the main providers used to offer around 10 funds managed in-house, but now generally offer far more with a range of external managers involved. The aim, of course, is to keep customers and expand their clientele by having something for everyone.
'However, we don't think a choice of 50 to 75 funds from one provider is really necessary,' Tso says. 'Some of them are very similar in their names and asset allocation. For the average Hong Kong person with limited investment knowledge, it can be very confusing. We are concerned about that and believe providers can do more for investor education and to explain why they are still introducing new funds.'
For such reasons, Tso also believes it would be premature to bring thematic funds into the MPF universe, focusing on sectors such as health care or alternative energy. There is nothing to stop investors holding these as a 'riskier' element in their overall wealth portfolio. But promoting a narrower, more speculative approach is essentially at odds with the MPF's fundamental goal of steady accumulation for long-term financial security.
'Everyone should balance risk over the totality of their portfolio,' Tso says. 'If you are taking risks in stocks or property, you should think about a less aggressive approach for your MPF choices, perhaps with more bonds, so you are in different asset classes.'
These views and developments emphasise that, while operating since 2000, the MPF scheme is still evolving. Regulators and providers are well aware of major outstanding challenges. For example, consultations have been taking place on the possibility of helping with annual payments or a monthly drawdown as an alternative to the current one-off lump sum payout at retirement. And there is pressure from some quarters to take advantage of growth opportunities in the mainland by allowing some MPF funds to invest directly in mainland listed securities, not just H-shares.
'We have to be very careful about that issue,' Tso says. 'People talk about the China growth story, but strong GDP doesn't necessarily mean strong returns all the time, and maybe not even better returns than from investments in countries in Europe.'