April 14, 2019

Thoughts On The FMP Fiasco

This is only my second post in the last nine months, and while I’d like to believe that there hasn’t been much to write about all this while, the truth is that ongoing priorities have kept me away, not just from writing, but from closely tracking the fund industry as well.  Still, thanks to the evolving FMP crisis (which I couldn’t ignore) and the incessant cajoling of my collaborators, for whatever it is worth, here it is. 

Anyone who has been following the coverage of the crisis in the media (mainstream and social), would have noted that much of the attention has been on Kotak MF, and on the so-called “safety” of FMPs.  In this post, I’d like to move that spotlight a bit.  The way I see it, firstly, the risks in investing in FMPs are, more or less, the same as they have been over the last several years.  It’s just that many investors, advisors, and fund houses, have been in denial over the fact that portfolio concentration is a bigger risk than credit quality in itself.  While I’ve talked at length about this previously, in this post, I want to talk about the questionable choices made by fund houses this time around, once this risk became a likely reality.  Secondly, I feel that looking at the FMP fiasco from the lens of the decisions of HDFC MF (rather than Kotak MF) offers a better picture of what has happened.  Investors in Kotak FMPs may have been the first to be visibly impacted, but it was HDFC MF that was the first to make the choices that brought us to where we are.

Let me start by flipping back to a month ago.  By my count, there were 6 NCDs issued by three Essel group companies that were due to mature in March.   HDFC MF had investments in two of these companies (across 5 NCDs).  Most of these investments were held in FMP portfolios.  These are the details of those NCDs:

Name of company ISIN Date of Maturity
Edisons Utility Works Pvt. Ltd.^INE097P0704722 March 2019
INE097P0706222 March 2019
INE097P0709620 March 2019
Sprit Textiles Pvt. Ltd.#INE069R0709122 March 2019
INE069R0710920 March 2019

^ Since renamed as Edisons Infrapower & Multiventures Pvt. Ltd.
# Since renamed as Sprit Infrapower & Multiventures Pvt. Ltd.
NCDs whose ISIN is shaded are zero coupon bonds

As you will note from the table, all of these NCDs were slated to mature between 20-22 March 2019.  The reason I mention this is because, in the portfolio disclosure made by HDFC MF, all of these investments were shown to be held in the portfolios of its schemes as on 31 March 2019, more than a week after they were supposed to have matured.  It begs the question- what happened?  If the fund house got back its money on the date of maturity, then why were these investments shown in the scheme books as on 31 March?  And if the fund house didn’t get back its money, shouldn’t these investments have been written off? 

When I first saw the portfolios, I couldn’t figure out what exactly had happened.  Since then, it has come to light that the maturity date of these investments was “revised” to 30 September 2019.  But how did something like that come about?  Surely, an issuer can’t unilaterally revise the date of maturity.  Was this the outcome of the much talked about agreement between the lenders and the Essel group back in January? 

Regardless, in my opinion, there can be no excuse for treating non-payment on the original due date as anything but a default.  What I find especially remarkable is that three of the NCDs above were zero coupon bonds and accounted for over 61% of the value of these NCDs.  To put it differently, these are investments on which the fund house would not have received a single rupee of interest or principal over the last 3 years or so. 

It appears that Kotak MF took a similar stance as HDFC MF in respect of the NCDs it held (which matured on 8 April).  In its case, it appears that all the NCDs that matured were zero coupon bonds.  Personally, I believe that all these investments should have been written off completely.

But coming back to the revision of maturity date, there are two other aspects about this that bother me.  The first relates to investment norms for FMPs.  As per SEBI regulations, a FMP can invest only into securities which mature before the date of maturity of the scheme.  Of the 8 HDFC FMPs that held the aforesaid NCDs, one is maturing on 30 September (i.e. on the revised maturity date).  All the other FMPs (including one that has been decided to be rolled over) were/ are maturing not later than 1 July 2019.  Going by that, revising the maturity date would appear to be in violation of the SEBI MF regulations.

The second issue that bothers me is the role of the rating agency.  In December, last year, the rating agency had put the abovementioned companies/ NCDs on “credit rating watch”.  On 31 January, soon after the debacle related to the sale of shares of ZEEL, the rating agency put out a note, stating that the rating remained unchanged.  What puzzled me about that note was that the rating agency seemed to base its view more on the stated intent of the lenders and the borrowers, than anything else.  Importantly, there was no mention of any change in the date of maturity of the NCDs.

Then on 18 February, it downgraded the ratings by one notch to A, while maintaining the “credit rating watch”.  But there was still no mention of the maturity of the NCDs being revised.  Its next communication was only on 10 April i.e. three weeks after the original maturity date of these NCDs had passed.  It was here that it noted the revised maturity date of the NCDs.  From what I could gather, and strangely to me, the rating agency didn’t seem to see this as an issue of any significance.  Personally, I think there was a good case for the rating to be downgraded to D.

Looking at this all together, throws up a number of questions.  Why did the fund houses not mark down these investments?   Was it a coincidence that both Kotak MF and HDFC MF decided the same course of action?  Was it a coincidence that the rating agency took a similar view?  Or that the rating agency put out its note only after the NCDs held by Kotak MF had matured? 

One industry insider, whom I spoke to, offered this explanation for the action of the fund houses: “It’s all about the NAV.  They can’t risk showing a low NAV.”  That may well be, and there may be other reasons as well.  One thing appears certain to me: both these fund houses (and perhaps others as well) appear to be desperate to project an illusion of safety around FMPs.  What is worse is that these fund houses are attempting to manipulate investors by playing on their behavioural biases. 

Take for instance, the decision by HDFC MF to roll over one of its FMPs.  Like some others, I hold the view that the officially stated purpose behind doing so, is a preposterous and sanctimonious assertion meant to camouflage the fact that the scheme has ~20% of its portfolio in Essel group companies.  But in terms of their relationship with investors, the roll over strikes me as a way to delude the investors into believing that they never risked losing money. 

Similarly, I noted a very careful choice of words by one of the spokespersons of Kotak MF, which also struck me as intended to delude investors.  To paraphrase the comment: “The impact is primarily on the returns, not on principal”.  To which I am tempted to retort: “Have you ever heard of time value of money?”  Even more bizarre was another statement by that person: “I tend to disagree that it is a call gone wrong”.

For anyone still wondering about what the fund houses were thinking, I present this (hopefully accurate) observation from the latest HDFC MF and Kotak MF portfolio disclosures.  While most of the NCDs of Essel group companies were held in FMP portfolios, there were only two open-end debt funds that also held these NCDs.  These were HDFC Credit Risk Debt Fund and Kotak Credit Risk Fund.  Need I say anything more?

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