July 18, 2019

A Dangerously Narrow View Of Risk

Fund houses are required by SEBI to classify the risk of each scheme as one of five levels: low, moderately low, moderate, moderately high, or high.  But what exactly should we make of a scheme whose risk level is defined by the fund house as, say, ‘moderately low’?  On the other hand, what should we make of Value Research or Morningstar telling us that the risk grade or risk rating of that scheme (relative to its peers) is, say, ‘average’?

It isn’t just their ambiguity: I would not rely on any of these labels as they largely stem from a narrow view of risk.   I believe that if we are not careful, these can lead us to make flawed assumptions about the riskiness of a scheme and, worse, act upon them. 

To illustrate the perils of relying upon these risk ratings, I’d like to take the case of a specific scheme whose risk ratings are currently poles apart from my assessment of its risk.  To be clear, this scheme is an extreme outlier: it would be hard to find a scheme quite like this.  However, the extremity of this example is what makes it useful to show the arbitrary nature of fund house risk ratings, and the limitations of the methodology followed by entities such as Value Research and Morningstar.

The scheme in question is a debt fund that has been around for over ten years.  From what I can see, for most of its existence, there has been a noticeable consistency in the way that its maturity/ duration and its credit profile have been managed.

As regards its performance, in each of the last 10 quarters, its return was above average (compared to its peers).  In 3 of the last 6 quarters, its return was exceptional.  In the month of June, this scheme gave a higher return than almost every non-gilt fund.  Its return in June was also higher than its return in any of the preceding 12 months.

The fund house has classified its risk as ‘moderately low’.  On the other hand, both Value Research and Morningstar have currently given it a risk grade/ rating of ‘average’ and an overall rating of 5 stars (based on the performance of its direct plan, growth option).

So, what’s the problem?

Just as with some other schemes, over the past several months, this scheme saw a significant fall in its AUM.  Consequently, there is a certain illiquid NCD in its portfolio, which it hasn’t been able to sell off, whose proportion to the portfolio has zoomed up as the AUM has fallen.  As on May-end, this NCD made up 71% of the scheme’s portfolio.  As on June-end, this NCD made up 87% of the portfolio.

Take a minute to digest that, if you will, because there’s more.

That single NCD is currently rated BBB (CE) and is under “credit watch with negative implications”.  In other words, that NCD is just about making the cut for being ‘investment grade’ and is precariously close to slipping below that.  If it does, well, there’s no saying how much an investor could be impacted.  If industry practices are anything to go by, for starters, the fund house would have to mark down the value of that investment by at least 25%.  And for those who have forgotten, here’s a bit of a flashback.  Last month, when DHFL was downgraded from BBB- to D, one scheme which had 67% of its portfolio in DHFL NCDs saw its NAV fall by 53% on that single day.

So how does a scheme with a portfolio like this get a risk rating of ‘average’ or a risk level of ‘moderately low’? 

From what I have gathered, in the Value Research/ Morningstar risk ratings, factors such as portfolio concentration, even credit quality are not considered.  In contrast, consider the approach that CRISIL takes for its fund ranking.  In the case of debt funds, for example, apart from return, the ranking gives weightage to elements such as asset quality, interest rate sensitivity, liquidity and company concentration, among other things.  As it happens, moneycontrol.com, which apparently uses CRISIL’s ranking, has given the abovementioned fund an overall rating of 2 stars.  While I am not suggesting that CRISIL’s process is perfect, it is certainly a lot better than anything else that I have seen.

On the other hand, in the case of the fund house classification, the issues may be more complicated.  For one, fund houses are currently bound by the way in which SEBI has defined the risk levels.  For another, product labelling is practically a one-time exercise.  Personally, I don’t see much utility to having such a risk classification, certainly not in its present form.  Regardless, I would prefer that fund houses gave investors a list of things to check before investing and also highlight issues that warrant caution. 

In any case, investors would do well to not blindly go by star ratings or risk ratings.  If we choose to use them, at the very least, we should understand their limitations. 

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