Approach Debt Funds With Your Eyes Wide Open…
May 06, 2019

Author: PersonalFN Content & Research Team

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(Image source: pixabay.com)

The current mayhem in the debt market has affected almost all institutional investors.

Post demonetisation, inflows in debt funds and liquid funds improved considerably. In October 2016, income funds and liquid funds collectively had an AUM of Rs 10.3 lakh crore which swelled to Rs 11.7 lakh crore within a year. Heavy inflows in debt funds and relatively benign interest rate regime perhaps made fund managers more confident about the repayment abilities of financial strained corporate houses as well.

This has been the root cause of the on-going debt crisis.

To lesser or greater extent, all market participants are responsible for it.

Here's how...

  • Investors, in search of superior returns (as compared to those on FDs), went overboard without understanding credit risks.

  • Fund managers remained complacent about liquidity conditions and extended finances to heavily indebted business houses with the thought that they would be able to easily rollover the debt. Even top fund houses like Aditya Birla Sun Life Mutual Fund, Principal Mutual Fund, HDFC Mutual Fund, Reliance Nippon Mutual Fund amongst others seem to have failed in their internal assessment process

  • Advisers were overzealous in promoting debt funds and liquid funds as an alternative to fixed deposits.

  • Credit rating agencies failed to timely revise credit ratings of corporate.

Mutual fund exposure to troubled companies just before the respective crisis came to light

Group/Company Mutual fund industry exposure
IL&FS Rs 2,130 crore
DHFL Rs 6,252 crore
Essel group Rs 6,500 crore
Reliance (ADAG) companies Rs 2,589 crore
(Source: PersonalFN Research)

If you refer to table above, the impact may not look very significant but it's inconsistent. Some schemes have lost severely, while others have managed to come out relatively unaffected.

For example, some mutual fund houses held up FMP redemption proceeds, since Essel Group didn't honour its debt repayment. In fact, these mutual funds didn't have any other choice but to allow the promoters of the group time until September 2019 to honour repayments.

Selling shares offered as collateral would have knocked off even the principal amount given the relatively illiquid nature of shares of Zee Entertainment (considering the quantum that mutual funds could have offloaded).

But some mutual funds escaped this situation as they exited the Essel group debt fund before the problem inflated to its present magnitude.

Take another example.

The IL&FS episode, which unfolded about eight months ago, was an eye-opener for investors. The total outstanding debt of this systemically important institution was a little under Rs 1 lakh crore. Until a few months prior to the default IL&FS enjoyed the highest ('AAA') rating.

The default affected schemes across fund houses and debt categories. Shockingly, the NAVs of some liquid mutual funds and ultra-short term funds incurred a single loss of anywhere between 3%-5%, thereby erasing almost all the gains that were made in the 8-9 months until then.

As against this, many debt funds easily absorbed the shock and nullified it within a couple of months.

Consider this example too.

When a fund house sold DHFL debt at a steep discount (as compared to other "AAA" rated instruments), it had immediately grabbed the attention of experts. But within a few months, credit rating agencies downgraded DHFL debt twice. This caused havoc in the debt market with bond prices falling as much as 20%-30% within a week.

Reliance Commercial Finance, Reliance Home Finance (ADAG companies), Amtek Auto, Jindal Steel and Power Limited (JSPL), Ballarpur Industries; the list of companies that got mutual funds in trouble is lengthy.

Nonetheless, like mentioned earlier, the effects on various mutual funds varied. On April 30, 2019, mutual funds with significant exposure to Reliance Commercial Finance and Reliance Home Finance marked own their exposure. NAVs of these funds fell in the range of 2%-5% in just one day. In contrast, schemes with lower exposure lost only about half a percent.

Are you wondering why?

It's because depending on the processes fund houses followed, their exposure to these troubled companies varied.

When the risk component rose significantly, process-driven fund houses estimated that sustaining debt could become difficult to issuers. As some fund houses have issued statements to the media that, their timely exits didn't reflect their foresight but was a consequence of processes they followed.

In essence, credit risks can knock doors randomly and avoiding them is almost impossible even for a seasoned fund manager. Nonetheless, a process-driven approach, less dependence on concentrated exposures (for generating higher returns), and absence of thoughtless NFOs to garner more AUM have separated responsible fund houses from others.

How to approach debt funds at this juncture?

Our outlook on funds exposed to papers of private entities, especially those having highly leveraged balance sheets, is that it is better to avoid funds carrying high credit risk (including liquid funds).

Advisers and investors alike should stick to mutual funds where the fund manager doesn't chase returns by taking higher credit risk. One should assess his/her risk appetite and investment time horizon and shouldn't ignore the interest rate risk while investing in debt funds.

In times when the policy rates could move either way, given the neutral monetary stance, first selecting the category of debt mutual funds becomes crucial.

Investing aggressively at the longer end of the yield curve could prove imprudent, even though the RBI has taken an accommodative stance. So, long-term debt funds can encounter higher volatility in the foreseeable future. If inflation moves up, it will limit RBI's scope of reducing policy rates further. Currently, shorter maturity papers are more attractive.

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