Mumbai: The Securities and Exchange Board of India, or Sebi, is set to ban asset management companies (AMCs) from launching multiple investment plans catering separately to different classes of investors under a single scheme, in a move that could alter the country’s investment landscape.

A Sebi official, who did not want to be named as he’s not authorized to talk to the media, told Mint that the regulator will not allow any AMC to launch such multiple plans under one fund going forward, to ensure that fund houses give up the practice of levying different expense structures for different categories of investors.

Graphic: Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint

Liquid funds and liquid-plus funds (later renamed ultra short-term funds) typically have separate plans under single schemes. The charges are different under different plans, though the portfolio under the scheme remains the same.

The move may administer another shock to the Rs6.75 trillion mutual fund industry, already reeling from the ban on entry loads imposed in August. Nearly Rs3.5 trillion, or 50% of the industry’s assets, are managed under liquid and liquid-plus schemes.

“Sebi wants AMCs to stop launching different plans with non-uniform expense structures under a single scheme," the official said. “Single-plan schemes with single expense structures are required to ensure that there is no discrimination between small and big investors."

Recently, the regulator sent letters to the AMCs, saying, “It is observed that some mutual fund schemes have different expense structures for different investor classes, e.g. retail/institutional/super-institutional plans, while there are other schemes that charge a single expense structure for the scheme. This practice has led to concerns of subsidization of one investor class by another and charging of different fees for managing the same portfolio of securities."

The letter adds, “In light of these concerns, we are in process of reviewing different expenses charged within the same scheme with same portfolio."

Experts said Sebi’s move will hurt the profitability of fund houses, significantly impact the commissions of distributors, and may also disincentivize large institutional clients who have parked money across hundreds of liquid and liquid-plus schemes.

Liquid and liquid-plus schemes are those where the corpus is allocated in short-term papers and money market instruments such as certificates of deposit, commercial paper, pass-through certificates, and collateralized borrowing and lending obligations. Maturities range from overnight to 90 days, and give 3.75-5% returns. Institutional investors park money in such schemes to benefit from tax arbitrage.

Officials at three AMCs said that Sebi restrained them from launching separate plans under ultra short-term funds when they approached the regulator in recent months for filing offer documents.

“Sebi refused to approve multiple plans under a single scheme when we approached them with offer documents for a liquid fund and an ultra-short term fund. So, we’ve launched the liquid scheme with a single plan," said the official at one of the three AMCs. Officials at the other two AMCs said, “Sebi wants single plans with single expense structure under a given scheme."

All existing schemes with multiple plans will also be required to conform to the new norms, and do away with varying expense ratios.

According to the CEO of a foreign AMC, if fund houses are forced to launch single plans under single schemes, all class of investors will be required to pay the same expense ratio under a given scheme. “To have a single expense ratio structure, retail investors will be required to pay much lower than what they are paying now and large institutional investors will be required to pay higher than what they are paying now," he said on condition of anonymity.

If institutional investors are required to pay higher expenses, it may lead to huge outflows of institutional money parked in liquid and liquid-plus schemes. On the flip side, it may attract more retail investors as they will be paying lower expense fees.

With average maturities narrowing after 1 August when new valuation norms for debt funds come into force, a lower expense ratio will bode well for retail investors. Following Sebi’s move, AMCs may hike the minimum investment for such schemes to avoid paying high distribution commission for small ticket-size plans. Also, exit loads may be imposed for ultra short-term funds to attract long-term money from the investors.

“Sebi wants us to bring more retail investors into such liquid and liquid-plus schemes. Lower expense ratio will ensure this," said the chief marketing officer at a domestic fund house. Most of the officials did not want to be identified as the matter involves the regulator and is sensitive.

Typically, AMCs launch liquid and liquid-plus schemes with three different plans—retail, institutional and super-institutional. While retail plans cater to the small investor who can invest as low as Rs5,000, institutional plans cater to large investors that can invest Rs50 lakh to Rs5 crore. Super-institutional plans cater to those who can invest over Rs5 crore.

These three plans have three different expense ratios, the charge that AMCs levy on investors, on an annual basis, for managing their money as well as other costs such as brokerage, fees paid to the fund’s registrar and transfer agent (RTA), bank charges, custody charges, trustee fee, distributor charges, etc.

Sebi’s concern is over the practice of charging retail investors more than large investors. While retail plans typically charge an expense ratio of 60-70 basis points (one basis point is one-hundredth of a percentage point) annually, the institutional plan levies a charge of only 40-50 bps. Investors in super-institutional plans pay only 25-30 bps.

Most of the liquid and liquid-plus or ultra short-term schemes have a large difference in the cost structures of retail and super-institutional plans. For instance, in the HSBC Ultra Short Term Bond Fund, the institutional-plus plan charges an expense ratio of 0.4%, as against 1.05% under scheme’s institutional plan, and 1.3% under the retail plan.

Under all such schemes, only about 10 bps account for expenses against RTAs, bank charges, custody and trustee fees combined. The rest is shared between the AMC and its distributors, with most of the money going to the distributors.

The regulator may issue new norms banning multiple plans under a single scheme shortly after gathering feedback from the industry.