November 12, 2020

Observations On Recent Fund Returns

The last ten months or so have been an extraordinary period for those whose fortunes are linked to the stock markets.  It isn’t often that frontline indices fall by close to 40% and then completely recover from there, all within such a short span of time.  If I am not mistaken, it was way back in 1990-91 that we last saw something quite like this. 

But leave aside the rarity of that: there is a fair bit to take away from fund returns over these past ten months.  In this post I’d like to offer a few assorted observations that stood out for me.  Some are high-level observations while some are scheme-specific.

All calculations are for the period 14 January (Nifty 50 TRI: 17,349) to 6 November (Nifty 50 TRI: 17,392).  Unless mentioned otherwise, the calculations pertain to direct plans.  Data sources: Value Research and FundzBazar.

The inconsistencies of Index Funds
As one might expect from the dates that I mentioned, point-to-point, index funds and ETFs tracking the major domestic indices- Nifty 50, Sensex and Nifty 500-  gave little to no returns.  If you look beyond those indices, the returns across other non-sectoral index funds and ETFs are both much better, and much worse.  On the positive extreme, the lone ETF tracking the Nifty 50 Shariah index gained ~19%.  On the negative extreme, the CPSE ETF fell by ~28%, and Bharat 22 ETF fell by ~25%.  Dubious diversification, perhaps?

Luck, skill, or something else?
Over this period, actively managed Large-cap funds gave returns ranging from +8.3% to –10.9%.  However, Value Research and other websites, list one other open-end large-cap scheme that gave a return of –11.4%.  Strictly speaking, this is a Focused fund with a mandate to invest in stocks regardless of their market cap.  Be that as it may, going by this scheme’s month-end portfolios, through these ten months, on an average, 97% of its equity holdings were large-cap stocks.  If you think it is worth including in the list of large-cap funds, then consider this: it is managed by the fund house that also managed the large-cap scheme that gave the highest return.

Differences across Dynamic Asset Allocation Funds (DAAFs)
More than any other category, DAAFs have the freedom to adjust their allocation in a way that preserves value when markets crash, and cashes in on market recoveries and rises.  Leading from that, these funds have been frequently positioned as a sort of panacea.  Thus, these past ten months represent an excellent period to look at what DAAFs can accomplish.  It turns out that, over this period, the returns of these funds ranged from +17.8%  to –12.6%.  So, what explains this vast difference? To some extent it was on account of stock selection which, contrary to the spiel on the importance of asset allocation, isn’t an insignificant variable.  In addition, and quite obviously, it had to do with the differences in when and how much the funds shifted from equity to debt and vice versa.  To be fair, no one can perfectly time the market, so I personally didn’t expect any fund to shift its allocations perfectly.  However, the evidence suggests that some of the funds got that right a lot better than others.  

ICICI Prudential Equity & Debt Fund
Over this period, this scheme gave a return of -8.4% which made it one of the worst performing Aggressive Hybrid funds.  What’s more, its return was worse than that of any of the open-end, actively-managed, diversified pure equity funds from ICICI Prudential.  Its return looks even more disturbing when you dissect its asset allocation.

Going by this scheme’s month-end portfolios, over these ten months, its average allocation to cash and debt instruments was around 30%.  If we assume a return of 10% (that’s what the fund house’s short duration fund has delivered), that would imply that the equity holdings gave a return of –16.3%.  In contrast, the worst performing, open-end, actively managed, diversified pure equity scheme from the fund house, gave a return of -7.8%.  That raises the question: was this hybrid scheme pursuing a divergent and riskier equity strategy than all other pure equity schemes from this fund house?  If so, why?

SBI Dynamic Asset Allocation Fund
This is one of the most unique and well-meaning funds across the industry, and it breaks my heart to say that over these ten months, it utterly failed to live up to its promise.  For those who don’t know, its equity allocation seeks to mirror the Nifty 50/ Sensex while the debt allocation is exclusively held in the 10 year g-sec. As I stated earlier, point-to-point, over these ten months, the Nifty 50 and the Sensex delivered little or no return.  Thus, the contributors to this scheme’s return had to be the return from the cash and debt component (SBI MF’s 10 year g-sec ETF gained 8.8%), and whatever gains it could make by switching from equity to debt when the market peaked (and as it rose again), and from switching from debt to equity around the bottom of the market.  Unfortunately, all of this came to nought.  For reasons that only the fund house can really explain, this scheme’s return was –0.2%, which is just a tiny bit better than that of the Nifty 50 index fund managed by the fund house: –0.6%.  The only explanation that I can think of is that the algorithm used by the fund house, did a terrible job of deciding the switches between equity and debt.  Talk of good intentions going bad.

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated that the 10 year g-sec gained 10.8%. Actually, it was SBI MF’s 10 year Constant Maturity g-sec fund that gained 10.8%.  SBI MF’s 10 year g-sec ETF gained 8.8% over the period.

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