Can you lose money in debt funds? | Value Research Don't view any debt funds as a quasi fixed return instrument as they carry a fair amount of risk, some more than others...
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Can you lose money in debt funds?

Don't view any debt funds as a quasi fixed return instrument as they carry a fair amount of risk, some more than others...

Debt, like equity, is an asset class. And for the purpose of diversification, some amount of your investments must be in this asset class. Having said that, you definitely would have some amount of savings in fixed-return instruments like fixed deposits (FDs) or Public Provident Fund (PPF) or National Savings Certificate (NSC). So if you put money in debt funds, you should do it for specific reasons: either because the tenure of the instrument matches your need, the tax incidence is lower when compared to other fixed returns instruments or the return, in comparison, is higher. But don't view any mutual fund debt product as a quasi fixed return instrument. Debt funds do carry a fair amount of risk, some more than others. You could lose money here too.

Intrinsically, debt instruments imply a fixed tenure and a fixed return. In that sense, they are assured. However, once you invest in a mutual fund, other factors like interest rate movements, the fund manager's call on their direction, his trading skills and also the intrinsic quality of the portfolio play an important role. The last factor is especially crucial. The greater the magnitude of low quality paper in the portfolio, the higher the returns that the fund manager is in a position to generate. For instance, one could broadly say that the difference between AAA and AA rated paper could vary from 25 to 50bps (100 bps = 1%). Unfortunately, it's not that simple. Let's talk about paper from companies in different industries. The difference in AAA Manufacturing and AA Manufacturing would be 25bps (the lower rated paper giving the slightly higher return despite both being from the same industry). If the industries change to AAA Manufacturing and AA NBFC, the difference could be 1-1.5 per cent. On the other hand, if it was AAA NBFC but AA Manufacturing, the latter would still offer a lower return and the difference could be around -75bps.

In extreme scenarios, the difference between a AAA Manufacturing and AA Real Estate would be around 5-6 percentage points. But if the paper was BBB Real Estate (theoretically speaking), it would give around 12-15 percentage points higher than what a AAA Manufacturing paper would offer. So if a fund is offering fabulous returns, there could be a compromise here. And compromises always leave you vulnerable.

Even if fund managers pack their portfolios with high rated paper, there is the interest rate risk if they get their call wrong. This is all the more prevalent in funds of longer tenure. For instance, let's assume that Bond A has a coupon rate of 8 per cent. Now let's say there is an increase in interest rates and Bond B has been issued with a coupon rate of 9 per cent. Now the price of Bond A will fall (since it is offering a lower interest rate) as the yield of Bond A will adjust higher (since bond yields and prices are inversely related). Consequently, debt funds that hold Bond A will be impacted. If there are many such bonds in the portfolio, the cumulative impact on the NAV would be negative.

While at any given point of time, all these risks exist, there are different phases in the interest rate cycle and in the debt market history where different risks have been played out more prominently. During the period from 1997 right through 2003, huge money was made on interest rates because during this period rates came down from 14 per cent to 5 per cent (10-year yields). From then on till 2008, money was made by taking credit risks when BBB rated companies were borrowing at 14-15 per cent. In 2008, it was liquidity risk that took centre stage, though credit risk was also prominent.

Mid-2009, credit opportunities (crop) funds began to catch the fancy of investors when yield spreads (difference in yields between benchmark sovereign paper and corporate bonds) widened to up to 200-300bps. The credit market presented an attractive risk-return profile as even good companies found it difficult to raise debt. Such funds are designed for risk-taking investors since they invest in high-return, low-rated paper. In such funds, the credit risk and liquidity risk run high.

What risks does your fund manager take?
Interest Rate Risk: When interest rates rise, bond prices fall. So if the fund manager has his portfolio stacked with lower interest rate paper, the prices of his holdings will fall resulting in a lower NAV. On the other hand, if interest rates fall then the price of his holdings rise and so does his NAV.

The longer a bond's maturity, the greater the interest rate risk. A bond fund with a longer average maturity will see its net asset value (NAV) react more dramatically to changes in interest rates as the prices of the underlying bonds in the portfolio increase or decline.

Credit Risk: Bonds carry the risk of default, meaning that the issuer is unable to make further interest or principal payments. They are rated by individual credit rating agencies to help describe the credit worthiness of the issuer. Higher the credit rating, lower the risk and lower the returns. Lower the credit rating, higher the risk and higher the return.

Liquidity Risk: If the credit rating gets downgraded or the current interest rates are much higher than the coupon rate, then the bond would face liquidity issues because finding a buyer would no longer be easy. Liquidity risk describes the danger when one has to sell a bond in the secondary market but is unable to find a buyer.

Liquidity Risk: If the credit rating gets downgraded or the current interest rates are much higher than the coupon rate, then the bond would face liquidity issues because finding a buyer would no longer be easy. Liquidity risk describes the danger when one has to sell a bond in the secondary market but is unable to find a buyer.




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