Monday, July 11, 2016

Are debt funds totally safe?

Are debt funds totally safe? Or do they carry some risk? Click on the link below to read my article in Mid-day Gujarati today.

The English translation is as under:

Debt mutual funds – are they totally safe?
Is there a mutual fund option for someone, who does not want to take any risks? Well, there are many investors that keep asking this question. Very often, they also think that only equity funds are risky and that there is no risk in debt funds. Since debt funds invest in debt securities, these funds are exposed to the risks associated with such securities.
Today we will discuss a very important risk related to debt securities and other fixed income investments. In the language of investments, this risk is known as the default risk or credit risk. This risk is strongly associated with debt securities and other fixed income investment options.
As we understand, when someone invests in a debt security, i.e. a debenture or a bond or a similar instrument, e.g. a fixed deposit, one is lending money to someone in need of it. In case of debentures, bonds and fixed deposits, the borrower would generally be a company, a bank or a Government.
The borrower is required to pay interest to the lender, i.e. the investor. This interest is the income for the investor. This interest payable is agreed upon right in the beginning, along with the time schedule of the payment.
However, there is a possibility that the borrower may not return the money in time. This possibility is known as the default or credit risk. Such a risk is inherent whenever the borrower is anyone other than the government of the investor’s country. The risk, simply stated, is the possibility that the borrower does not pay up the dues as per the agreed schedule. The key phrase here is “as per the agreed schedule”, which means both non-payment and delayed payment are covered.
There are two factors leading to this risk – the ability and the willingness of the borrower. While willingness is difficult to measure, the ability can be measured through the financial statements, especially in case of a company. This is done by the credit rating agencies and they assign credit rating to the various debt papers issued by the borrowers for the purpose of lending. Please remember, the rating is assigned to a paper and not to the issuer.
Between short term and long term borrowing, one may consider the long term borrowing to be riskier as the uncertainties rise with the increase in the term of borrowing. Similarly, if the borrowing amount is small, the ability is higher than if the same is large. Companies may also issue debentures backed by the security of asset. Such secured debentures may enjoy higher rating than an unsecured paper issued by the same issuer.
Though credit rating could be a good starting point to evaluate whether to invest in certain debt papers, the risk does not completely go away even with the highly rated papers. The risk keeps rising with the drop in credit rating. A proven and time-tested method to reduce such risk is to diversify across various issuers. The ability to repay is less likely to suddenly drop across different companies operating in different businesses and industries.
This risk is present in all debt securities, as already mentioned earlier. The only issuer that is considered to be free of this risk is the government of a country, since it is authorized to print currency in case the need arises. For any other entity, the risk is higher than zero.
Debt mutual funds invest in debentures, which carry this credit risk. Hence, the debt fund investors are also exposed to this risk, indirectly. If a debenture in which a debt fund has invested defaults, i.e. does not return the money in time, the NAV of the debt fund would drop to that extent.
However, there are two major reasons that reduce this risk for debt funds:
1.     A professional fund management team evaluated which securities to invest in. being a professional, the fund manager is likely to do a better job than most individual investors.
2.     By regulation, the debt fund portfolio needs to be diversified across issuers. As we discussed earlier, diversification also reduced the risk of default.
Apart from that, an investor can evaluate which schemes to invest in based on (1) the investment objective as defined in the offer document and (2) the portfolio as disclosed in the monthly fact sheet of the fund.
A very important piece of information in the fact sheet is the rating profile of the fund, which shows how much is the scheme’s exposure in what type of credit rating. If the investor is uncomfortable with high exposure in lower rated papers, one may avoid the scheme altogether.
Debt funds, though not risk free, are a great way to invest for the conservative investor, as the risk of default is managed through professional fund management and diversification.
-        Amit Trivedi
The author runs Karmayog Knowledge Academy. Recently, Amit has authored a book titled “Riding the Roller Coaster – Lessons from Financial Market Cycles We Repeatedly Forget”. The views expressed are his personal opinions.

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