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EPF's still the best bet

Shobhana Subramanian in New Delhi | August 16, 2004 09:25 IST

'When I get older, losing my hair, Many years from now, Will you still be sending me a Valentine, Birthday greeting, bottle of wine, If I'd been out till a quarter to  three, will you lock the door Will you still need me, will you still feed me When I'm sixty-four?' -- The Beatles

With inflation at a three-year high of 7.61 per cent, it doesn't look like there would be many who can afford wine -- or be financially comfortable at 64.

As if that were not enough, the interest rate on the employees provident fund was cut from 9.5 per cent to 8.5 per cent on August 9. That is a bit of a blow given that almost all other fixed -income savings options are barely covering for inflation.

The forced saving made each month through the EPF assures a nest egg when we finally hang up boots. So the thought that we are going to end up with considerably less is disappointing.

A back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that if you put in Rs 1,500 every month and your employer does the same, at the rate at 8.5 per cent and at the end of 25 years you end up with a staggering Rs 31 lakh (Rs 3.1 million). At 9.5 per cent, you would have ended up with Rs 37 lakh (Rs 3.7 million).

What happens is that since the interest earned keeps getting added back to the principal, the rate of interest on the principal alone actually works out to 8.67 per cent.

The power of compounding is truly awesome. That's provided, of course, that there are no further interest cuts down the line. What Rs 31 lakh will fetch us in 2029 is an entirely a different matter.

The short point is, given the lower interest rate, does it make sense to put money into EPFs over and above the stipulated levels? The answer is an emphatic YES.

Since you do not pay tax either while making the contribution or on the interest when you withdraw, the return is the highest available today. There is no fixed-income savings instrument in the market today that can match a tax-free return of 8.5 per cent.

Moreover, it is gilt-edged, meaning it is backed by the government, so your money is safe. Check out your other options. The PPF is safe, but earns you just 8 per cent and allows you to put in only up to Rs 70,000 a year. The RBI Relief Bonds are also sovereign and give you 8 per cent interest but they are taxable, so that the return is closer to 6.5 per cent.

Every month, 12 per cent of your basic plus DA, or 12 per cent of total salary excluding HRA and other allowances, is deducted as a compulsory contribution to the EPF. You employer puts in an equivalent amount and you will earn an interest of 8.5 per cent on the total sum.

You can voluntarily contribute more but there will be no matching contribution from your employer. Moreover if you are ever in a tight spot and need money for a medical emergency, a wedding or even to buy a house you can pull out some of the money in line with what is called a 'non-refundable' scheme.

According to the Employees Provident Fund Organisation, if you are buying a house you can withdraw money after five years; for your daughter's marriage, you need to wait for seven years. You can withdraw between 50 per cent and 90 per cent of the amount contributed by you, depending on what you need it for.

So it's not as though you don't see your money till you retire. There is talk that, much like the PAN card, there will soon be distinctive numbers for EPF accounts, which can be accessed through the Internet. So wherever you are, you can easily keep track of your account. That will certainly make life easier.

The advantages
  • As per the Provident Fund Act, a member has to contribute at the rate of 10 per cent or 12 per cent of his basic pay, dearness allowance (DA) and retaining allowance if any. In case the member wants to contribute more than this, voluntarily he can do so at any rate he desires. i.e., up to 100 per cent of basic plus DA and earn 8.5 per cent on it. But the employer is not bound to contribute at the enhanced rate.
  • EPF gives you Section 88 benefits. So when you consider that even the interest you earn on it is tax-free, your returns would be extremely high.
  • Even after you retire, you can continue to keep the money with the EPFO or the trust and it will still give you the same returns.

The disadvantages

  • EPF is quite illiquid as an investment and should be viewed as a retirement saving, since withdrawal is a function of the rules of the Employees Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO) or trusts (Companies that do not prefer to park the contributions with EPFO keep them in their corporate PF trusts).
  • Poor servicing by the EPFO means you have to run from pillar to post to get your money. Red tape also hinders the easy availing of loans from accumulated funds.

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