Debt Funds

If you want to avoid the market fluctuations of equity stocks & are risk-reverse, consider investing in debt-oriented mutual fund schemes

What is Debt Fund?

A debt fund is a mutual fund scheme that invests in fixed income instruments, such as Corporate and Government Bonds, corporate debt securities, and money market instruments etc. that offer capital appreciation. Debt funds are also referred to as Income Funds or Bond Funds.

Who should invest in a Debt Fund?

Debt funds are ideal for investors who want regular income, but are risk-averse. Debt funds are less volatile and, hence, are less risky than equity funds. If you have been saving in traditional fixed income products like Term Deposits, and looking for steady returns with low volatility, debt mutual funds could be a better option, as they help you achieve your financial goals in a more tax efficient manner and therefore earn better returns.

How Debt Funds Work?

Debt funds invest in either listed or unlisted debt instruments, such as Corporate and Government Bonds at a certain price and later sell them at a margin. The difference between the cost and sale price accounts for the appreciation or depreciation in the fund’s net asset value (NAV). Debt funds also receive periodic interest from the underlying debt instruments in which they invest. In terms of return, debt funds that earn regular interest from the fixed income instruments during the fund’s tenure are similar to bank fixed deposits that earn interest. This interest income gets added to a debt fund on a daily basis. If the interest payment is received, say, once every year, it is divided by 365 and the debt fund’s NAV goes up daily by this small amount. Thus, a debt scheme’s NAV also depends on the interest rates of its underlying assets and also on any upgrade or downgrade in the credit rating of its holdings.

Market prices of debt securities change with movements in interest rates. Let’s assume, your debt fund owns a security that yields 10 % interest. If the interest rate in the economy falls, new instruments issued in the market would offer this lower rate. To match this lower rate, there would be an increase in the prices your fund’s underlying instruments as they have a higher coupon (interest) rate. As a result of the increase in the debt instrument’s value, your fund’s NAV, too, would increase.

How Debt Funds are different from other Mutual Fund Schemes?

In terms of operation, debt funds are not entirely different from other mutual fund schemes. However, in terms of safety, they score higher than equity mutual funds. For instance, when the market falls, the NAVs of your equity funds fall sharply, whereas in case of debt funds, the fall is not as sharp. Having said that, debt funds can offer only moderate returns, while equity funds, which are highly risky, offer high returns over longer time horizon.

Why invest in Debt Mutual Funds?

A few major advantages of investing in debt funds are low cost structure, stable returns, high liquidity and reasonable safety. Debt funds also score on post-tax return. Dividends from debt funds are exempt from tax in the hands of investors.The mutual fund, however, has to pay a Dividend Distribution Tax, which is currently 28.325 per cent in case of individuals or Hindu undivided families. While long-term capital gains from debt funds are taxed at 10 per cent without indexation and 20 per cent with indexation, short-term capital gains taxes are levied according to the income-tax bracket one belongs to.

Thus, debt funds can be a good alternative to investors for achieving their financial goals if they do not intend to bear risk involved in equity investments.

Growth Option vs. Dividend Option
As mentioned above, dividend from mutual funds is tax free in the hands of the investors, but the same is subject to Dividend Distribution Tax (currently 28.325 %), which indirectly decreases the net returns. Hence, dividend payment or dividend reinvestment option gives better post-tax returns, to those who are in the highest tax bracket. However, for those in lower tax slabs, growth option could be more tax-efficient. In short, one should choose the appropriate option depending on the tax bracket.

Who should invest in Debt Mutual Funds?

There’s no fixed rule as to who should invest in debt funds. It depends on the requirement of investors. Different types of investors invest in different types of debt funds. For instance, if someone wants to park his emergency funds, he can go for liquid funds.

As a thumb rule, 3-6 month’s household expenses can be one’s emergency fund depending on the age. Roughly the amount that gives you the confidence to combat emergencies in your household should be enough. Anything more can actually affect your investment portfolio. Those in their 20s and 30s might need more, so garner funds for about six months’ expenses, whereas those nearing retirement might not need much as they would have built up their reserves. The amount you save for an emergency depends ultimately on what makes you comfortable.

If you are the risk-averse type, then you might prefer a large fund of, say, a year’s salary. If, however, you are the living on-the-edge type, then six months’ salary might suffice.

For those planning to buy a home after 2-3 years, investing in a combination of both long- and short-term debt funds might be a good idea. Also, a debt fund can be used in the overall portfolio for diversification across asset classes. Debt Funds can also be used for portfolio de-risking when you are nearing your financial goals.

How to pick the right Debt Fund?

Remember, it is the asset allocation (government securities, corporate debt and marketable securities) that largely determines how a debt fund’s NAV will move. A close look at a fund’s portfolio composition will give you an idea of the expected returns, risks and liquidity. So, when picking a fund, watch out for a few things.

One, check the average maturity of the fund’s portfolio as this has a bearing on your returns. The lower the average maturity period, the lower the fund’s volatility and your returns. On the other hand, a fund with a long maturity period is likely to be more volatile, but the returns are likely to be better.

Two, make sure the fund’s portfolio is reasonably liquid. A large percentage of corporate debt in the portfolio does not bode well in the short term, as it is relatively less liquid. If the fund faces redemption pressure, it would be forced to sell these securities at a discount, lowering the NAV. Also, be wary of funds that hold a lot of unrated and unlisted debt.

Three, avoid schemes with small corpuses. That’s because funds don’t disclose if there are any investor who owns a substantial chunk of outstanding units. If there are such investors and they decide to redeem their holdings, the fund could be forced to sell holdings below the market rates.

Four, the best tool to capture the interest rate sensitivity of a debt fund is modified duration. It tells you how much the price of a bond would move if interest rates move up or down by 1 per cent. The higher the modified duration, the greater will be the impact of an interest rate change. Mutual funds give you access to all the information in their offer documents and other periodic disclosures for you to make an informed decision. It is then up to you to take the investment decision and sign the form, or channel the money to suit your financial needs.

Also, you should understand how interest rate movements, credit ratings and liquidity affect a debt fund’s performance. Theoretically, if interest rates rise, the NAV of a debt fund should fall. That’s because Bond prices move in the opposite direction as interest rates. A fall in bond prices leads to a decline in a fund’s NAV. The opposite would happen if interest rates fell. Of course, in an imperfect and illiquid market like India, this might not happen to the entire extent. Moreover, if some bonds held by your debt fund are upgraded, their prices would rise, leading to a drop in yields. That would, of course, increase your fund’s NAV. So, one should be prepared for fluctuations in one’s fund’s NAV. Even Gilt Funds (which invest only in government securities) that are advertised as the safest available investments, can witness sharp fluctuations in their NAVs. That’s because prices of government securities are a function of various economic factors, including interest rates, macroeconomic data and liquidity in the banking system. When these change, so do the Gilt Fund’s NAV.

What is Average Maturity and how is it useful?

Debt funds invest in a number of debt instruments, all of them having a varying maturity. That’s where the average maturity comes handy. As the name suggests, it basically indicates the average maturity of all the securities in a portfolio, giving you the freedom to compare.

Average maturity thus gives you a quick glimpse into the sensitivity of the bond to interest rates. Funds with higher average maturities tend to be more volatile in the short term since their objective is to deliver higher returns over the long term. Simply put, a fund with an average maturity of 5 years is definitely more volatile in the short term than a fund with an average maturity of say 9 months. That’s because in the shorter term there is reasonable surety on the receipt of the coupon income.

So matching your investment horizon with the average maturity is always a good idea. But remember, an average maturity of say 4 years doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to hold it for 4 years. But it definitely indicates is that you can expect to get optimal returns, given the interest rate environment, over 4 years.

Exit load is an effective mechanism that prompts investors to stay invested through the desired holding period. This ensures that investors, who move in and out of the fund and take away accrued gains during momentary positive market movements, do not short-change diligent investors who stay invested for the entire course.

Why is it essential to match the investment Horizon with that of the scheme?

Funds having a lower average maturity are ideal for short-term holdings as they are well protected from the fluctuating interest rate movements. However, holding them for more than their average maturity may not get you the optimal results.There can be various types of debt funds based on the average maturity of the instruments invested in. Although debt funds are less risky than equity funds, they are still subject to market volatility.The level of volatility therefore depends on the average maturity of the specific portfolio.

The higher the average maturity, the greater the uncertainty in the short term, which is what results in greater volatility. Conversely, the lower the average maturity, the greater the certainty, which in turn lowers volatility.

Liquid funds are the least volatile as their maturity is in days and at the other extreme there are income funds, where the average maturity is in multiple of years.

So in order to really get the most out of debt funds, it is essential that you match your investment horizon with the average maturity of the scheme.

Using Debt Funds for STP and SWP
Debt funds also allow you to take advantage of investing in equity market along with growth on your principal amount through Systematic Transfer Plan (STP). With an STP, you can transfer amounts in parts/tranches from one mutual fund scheme to another, within the same fund house at regular intervals. Such a transfer averages the cost of purchase,mitigating some market-related risks. Typically, an investor first parks his funds in a liquid or a floating-rate debt fund and then transfers them via STP to the scheme (usually equity or balanced) of his choice at regular intervals.

Systematic withdrawal plan (SWP) is a payment option in a mutual fund that lets you redeem units worth a pre-specified amount at a specific intervals (monthly, quarterly, half-yearly or annually). This is suitable for the investors who desire periodic income.

Using Debt Funds for Special Goals
Choosing funds for children’s education
When it comes to taking the mutual fund route for your children’s future, the basic rules of the game are essentially the same as that for any long-term goal. But here, merely investing will not work. You need to be cautious about the risk management of your corpus, especially when your child is close to going for his higher studies. Along with investing, making the money available at a time when your child needs it is equally important. So, here debt funds play a vital role. With time on your side, investing in equity has many ad vantages. But you need to keep a close eye on the market once you are less than three years away from your goal. One needs to de-risk the portfolio when you are nearing your targets to ensure that the gains you have earned are not wiped out. In other words, as you near your target, start shifting from equity to debt so as to secure your gains.

When moving away from high-risk options, you could choose to move into liquid and short-term debt funds or slightly riskier funds in the debt space, such as bond and gilt funds, depending on the interest rate scenario prevailing at that time. For instance, if the interest rates are falling, short- to long-term bond and gilt funds would bode well. But if interest rates remain flat or move upwards, stick to liquid funds; they are safer than the rest of the debt schemes, if not the safest of all financial instruments, and they would still earn you more than your savings bank account.

The ideal way to build an adequate corpus for your child’s future is to go step by step – through Systematic Investment Plan or SIP. The sooner you start, the better. Of course, you also need to stop along the way occasionally to make sure things are going as planned. The closer you get to your investment goal, the more careful you need to be that you are not taking a wrong turn.

Role of debt fund in retirement portfolio.
As you age, lighten your equity funds holdings marginally; the aggressive investor should cut equity in his portfolio from 80 per cent to 70 per cent, and the conservative investor from 60 per cent to 40 per cent. With about 15 years away from retirement, you should start playing steady and balance your exposure to debt and equity. For instance, the conservative investor may choose a 10-20 per cent higher debt allocation. On the debt side, you may look at floating-rate funds and fixed maturity plans. Balanced funds are another option for the semi-aggressive investor to strike a debt-equity mix.

Strategy - Follow the life stage approach to investing while saving through mutual funds for retirement needs. As you age, keep balancing the allocation between equity and debt.

With around 10 years away from your retirement, your priority should be to ensure the safety of your accumulated wealth. Plan out the de-risking strategy and wait for an opportune time to migrate your money from volatile equity to safer debt. By the time you are 1-2 years away from retirement, a large portion should have been moved away from equity into debt funds.

Acquiring a house
Investing in mutual funds not just helps in creation of wealth but also helps in creating assets. They play an important role in helping one build the biggest asset of life—a home of your own.

Paying the equated monthly instalments (EMIs) has come reasonably within the reach for most families, especially when both partners work. However, accumulating a big lump sum to pay the down payment on the house remains the biggest obstacle. This is where mutual fund schemes come in handy. All those who live on rent constantly wonder why they should be throwing their hard-earned money out as expenses, when they could use it to buy a house and create an asset. That is more so now, when property prices have, perhaps, settled down and when home loans are easily available as housing finance companies are offering easy loans to customers. If you are contemplating buying a house in 2-3 years, mutual fund schemes can help you accumulate the money, especially the down payment for the loan.

Generating funds from friends, relatives or pawning gold might not be the best ways to arrange the money. Plan early to avoid depending on such sources as far as possible. If you feel that your personal circumstances are right for buying a home, start by creating a savings plan for your down payment. Get an idea of the purchase price and the EMI payments that you can afford. Estimate what you’ll need for margin money, which is usually 20 per cent of the home price. Thereafter, calculate how much you must save every month.

Where to Invest
If the time horizon is less than a year or just a year away, it is better to stash funds in a money-market or liquid fund. The volatility in these funds is the least as exposure to equities is non-existent. The idea is to preserve the capital and not take undue risks with the savings. Choose at least two or three debt funds for diversification and start saving through the systematic investment plan (SIP) process. Ideally, keep the portfolio tilted towards debt even if you are taking a bit of risk.

Strategise your moves.
Remember, even debt funds suffer from interest rate risk. So, ensure that you shift to less volatile debt funds, such as short-term debt funds, at least two years before reaching your goal. With just one year away from your goal, shift your savings completely into a liquid fund. Your small savings every month might not cramp your household budget, but they will still create a lump sum big enough to meet your down payment needs for a home.

As shown in the chart below, there is wide choice, to invest as per investor’s risk-return profile and life stage. Note that the choice of schemes is illustrative. For instance a young investor at the start of her career has a higher risk appetite and time horizon and, thus, she can look at investing in long-term debt categories such as monthly income plans, gilt funds, long-term income funds and credit opportunity funds. As the investor’s age advances, the risk-taking capacity may diminish. Hence, investment in shorter maturity schemes such as fixed maturity plans, liquid funds and ultra-short term debt funds may be considered. The shorter lock-in period ensures that funds can be accessed to meet both expected and unscheduled financial obligations.

As can be seen from the table below, a small portion of equity in the portfolio could enable investors to generate inflation adjusted returns in the medium to long term. CRISIL-AMFI Monthly Income Plan Index which has up to 30% of the portfolio in equity has been used for the inference.

Fund

Feature

Suitability

Liquid Funds

Low duration funds, with portfolio maturity of less than 91 days.

A good alternative to savings bank account; potential to offer higher post-tax returns.

Ultra short-Term Bond Funds

Low duration funds, with portfolio maturity of less than a year.

Ideal for parking short-term surplus money; also offer slightly better returns than liquid funds.

Short-Term Income Funds

Medium duration funds where portfolio maturity ranges from one year – three years.

Investors with a horizon greater than one year can benefit from these funds in a rising interest rate scenario.

Fixed Maturity Plans (FMPs)

Passively managed close-ended funds, where investments are held to maturity.

An alternative to FDs with investment horizon of over three years.

Long-Term Income Funds

Medium to long duration funds with portfolio maturity between three and 10 years.

Suitable for investors with a longer investment horizon. These funds benefit when interest rates fall as bond prices (NAVs) and interest rates are inversely correlated.

Gilt Funds

Medium to long duration funds with portfolio maturity between three and 20 years and negligible credit risk,

The gilt portfolio of these funds does not carry credit risk, only interest rate risk. These funds benefit the most in a falling interest rate environment.

Monthly income Plans (MIPs)

Medium to long duration funds normally with exposure of less than 30% to equity.

Ideal for investors who are looking for returns better than traditional debt instruments and do not want higher exposure to equities. The tilt towards debt ensures stability of income and the equity portion provides appreciation when stock markets rise.

Capital Protection Oriented Funds (CPFs)

Follow an investment structure which seeks to protect the initial investment from capital erosion. These type of scheme offered is “oriented towards protection of capital” and “not with guaranteed returns”. The orientation towards protection of the capital originates from the portfolio structure of the scheme and not from any bank guarantee, insurance cover etc.

CPFs have a small equity component which gives risk-averse investors an opportunity to participate in the equity markets without worrying about erosion of the principal which is protected. CPFs are also rated by credit rating agencies.

Dynamic Bond Funds

Actively managed by reducing the portfolio maturity in a rising interest rate environment and increasing portfolio maturity in a falling interest rate environment.

Ideal for investors who may find it difficult to judge the interest rate movement. These funds help investors minimize interest rate risk as they offer flexibility to alter the portfolio maturity according to the interest rate scenario. Maturity is longer when interest rates fall and shorter when interest rates rise.

Credit Opportunity Funds

These funds purchase bonds in lower rated bonds to generate higher returns/yields.

Suitable only for investors with a profile to take higher risk as investing down the rating spectrum adds to the risk of the portfolio.

Different type of schemes in the Debt Fund Category

There are various types of schemes in the debt fund category, which are classified on the basis of the type of instruments they invest in and the tenure of the instruments in the portfolio, as explained below:

Liquid & Money Market Funds
Savings bank deposits have been the retail investors’ preferred investment option to park surplus cash. Most investors regard these as the only avenue while some believe parking surplus cash elsewhere can erode their capital and does not provide liquidity. CRISIL’s recent study draws attention to a more attractive option – Liquid Fund / Money Market Mutual Funds. The analysis underlines that surplus cash invested in money market mutual funds earns high post-tax returns with a reasonable degree of safety of the principal invested and liquidity.

Liquid Funds, as the name suggests, invest predominantly in highly liquid money market instruments and debt securities very short tenure and hence provide high liquidity. They invest in very short-term instruments such as Treasury Bills (T-bills), Commercial Paper (CP), Certificates Of Deposit (CD) and Collateralized Lending & Borrowing Obligations (CBLO) that have residual maturities of up to 91 days to generate optimal returns while maintaining safety and high liquidity. Redemption requests in these funds are processed within one working (T+1) day.

Income funds
They invest primarily in debt instruments of various maturities in line with the objective of the funds and any remaining funds in short-term instruments such as Money Market instruments. These funds generally invest in instruments with medium- to long-term maturities.

Short-Term funds
Short-term debt funds primarily invest in debt instruments with shorter maturity or duration. These primarily consist of debt and money market instruments and government securities. The investment horizon of these funds is longer than those of liquid funds, but shorter than those of medium-term income funds.

Floating Rate funds (FRF)
While income funds invest in fixed income debt instruments such as bonds, debentures and government securities, FRFs are a variant of income funds with the primary aim of minimising the volatility of investment returns that is usually associated with an income fund. FRFs invest primarily in instruments that offer floating interest rates. Floating rate securities are generally linked to the Mumbai Inter-Bank Offer Rate (MIBOR), i.e., the benchmark rate for debt instruments. The interest rate is reset periodically based on the interest rate movement. The objective of FRFs is to offer steady returns to investors in line with the prevailing market interest rates.

Gilt Funds
The word ‘Gilt’ implies Government securities. A gilt fund invests in government securities of various tenures issued by central and state governments. These funds generally do not have the risk of default, since the issuer of the instruments is the government. Gilt funds invest in Gilts which have both short-term and/or long-term maturities. Gilt funds have a high degree of interest rate risk, depending on their maturity profile. The longer the maturity profiles of the instruments, the higher the interest rate risk. (Interest rate risk implies that there is an effect on the market price of debt instruments when interest rates increase and decrease. Market prices of debt instruments rise when interest rates fall and vice-versa.)

Interval Funds
Interval fund is a mutual fund scheme that combines the features of open-ended and closed-ended schemes, wherein the fund is open for subscription and redemption only during specified transaction periods (STPs) at pre-determined intervals. In other words, Interval funds allow redemption of Units only during STPs. Thus between two STPs they are akin to closed-ended schemes and therefore, compulsorily listed on Stock Exchanges. However, unlike typical closed-ended funds, interval funds do not have a maturity date and hence open-ended in nature. Hence, one may remain invested in an Interval Fund as long as one wishes to like any open ended schemes. Hence, in a sense, interval funds are akin to Fixed Maturity Plans (FMPs) with roll-over facility, as they allow roll over of investments from one specified period to another.

Interval funds are typically debt oriented products , but may invest in equities as well as per the scheme’s investment objective and asset allocation specified in the Scheme Information Document.

Interval funds are taxed like any other mutual fund, depending on whether the underlying portfolio is pre-dominantly invested in equities or debt securities. If the fund invests 65% or more of its corpus in debt securities, it is taxed like a non-equity fund. Likewise, if the fund invests 65% or more in equities, it is taxed like an equity fund.

Multiple Yield Funds
Multiple yield funds (MYFs) are hybrid debt-oriented funds that invest predominantly in debt instruments and to some extent in dividend-yielding equities.

The debt instruments assist in generating returns with minimum risk and equities assist in long-term capital appreciation. MYFs invest predominantly in debt and money market instruments of short-to-medium-term residual maturities.

Dynamic Bond Funds
DBFs invest in debt securities of different maturity profiles. These funds are actively managed and the portfolio varies dynamically according to the interest rate view of the fund managers. Such funds give the fund manager the flexibility to invest in short- or longer-term instruments based on his view on the interest rate movement. DBFs follow an active portfolio duration management strategy by keeping a close watch on various domestic and global macro-economic variables and interest rate outlook.

Fixed Maturity Plans (FMPs)
FMPs, as the name indicates, have a pre-determined maturity date (like a term deposit) and are close-ended debt mutual fund schemes. FMPs invest in debt instruments with a specific date of maturity, lesser than or equal to the maturity date of the scheme, also enjoy the status of debt funds. After the date of maturity, the investment is redeemed at current NAV and the maturity proceeds are paid back to the investors.

The tenure of an FMP may range from as low as 30 days to 60 months. Since the maturity date and the amount are known beforehand, the fund manager can invest with reasonable confidence, in securities that have a similar maturity as that of the scheme. Thus, if the tenure of the scheme is one year then the fund manager would invest in debt securities that mature just before a year. Unlike in other open ended funds, where one can buy and sell units from the mutual funds on an ongoing basis), no pre-mature redemptions are permitted in FMPs. Hence, the units of FMPs (being close ended schemes) are compulsorily listed on a stock exchange/s so that the investors may sell the units through stock exchange route in case of urgent liquidity needs.

Monthly Income Plans (MIPs)
MIPs are hybrid schemes that invest in a combination of debt and equity securities, but are typically debt oriented mutual fund schemes, as they invest pre-dominantly in debt securities and a small portion (15-25 per cent) in equities.

MIPs offer regular income in the form of periodic (monthly, quarterly, half-yearly) dividend pay-outs. Hence MIPs are preferred option for investors seeking steady income flows. Under MIPs, monthly income or regular dividend is neither assured nor is it mandatory for mutual funds to pay at stated intervals, because in a mutual fund scheme, the dividend is paid at the discretion of the mutual fund and is subject to availability of distributable surplus from realised gains.

Due to the equity exposure, MIP returns can be volatile and may suffer losses, making dividend pay-outs irregular - both in quantum and frequency or even skip dividend payment. In spite of this, MIPs have a history of providing higher returns after adjusting for tax and hence can be a better option.

Investors wary of fluctuating income from MIPs' dividend option can opt for Growth Option and a systematic withdrawal plan, or SWP, which allows regular redemption of a pre-determined amount. An SWP under an MIP can work as a regular source of income for investors. SWP works better when a person invests a large sum.

Capital Protection-Oriented Funds
As the name suggests, Capital Protection-Oriented Funds (CaPrOF) are mutual fund schemes that aim to protect at least the capital, i.e., the initial investment, providing an opportunity to make additional gains, as per the investment objectives of the fund. In short, a CaPrOF aims to safeguard the principal amount while offering a potential equity-linked capital appreciation. However, it is important to note that there is no guarantee of returns or guaranteed capital protection.

CaPrOF are closed-ended debt funds that typically invest a major portion (say 80%) of the corpus in AAA-rated bonds, and the remaining amount in riskier securities like equity. Some funds may even take exposure to equity derivatives to protect against the downside risk.

It is this very structure that is oriented towards protecting the principal. By the end of the stipulated term, the debt portion of the fund grows to give you back the principal, while the equity portion brings the potential upside. Thus, even if the equity market crashes, the principal amount is protected. Hence, CaPrOF are preferred over regular FMPs. CaPrOF are ideal for investors who wish to protect their capital against the downside risk and also participate in the equity market.

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