Home / Money / Personal Finance /  Does higher duration risk generate higher returns in debt mutual funds?

When we talk about risk and returns, the generally accepted norm suggests that returns increase as one goes up the risk curve. However, this doesn’t seem to stand true for all types of investments. Ravi Saraogi, a Sebi-registered investment advisor and co-founder of Samasthiti Advisors says, “Duration risk is not the way to generate higher returns in debt funds".

Duration risk, or interest rate risk, is the potential loss on investments because of interest rate movement in the economy. As the maturity of the debt instruments held in the portfolio increases, the duration risk increases. Thus, the prices of long-term bonds fall more compared to short-term bonds or funds when interest rates rise.

This explains the lower difference between the returns from short and long-duration funds in the past few months when the yields have been moving upwards. According to Saraogi, the 10-year average return difference between the top ultra-short funds (with a duration between 3-6 months) and medium to long duration funds is just 10 basis points, or 0.1%. It is worse if a shorter return period is considered.

To remove the point-to-point return bias, Mint analysed the historical returns on a rolling return basis to see if the performance of a longer-duration instrument is better for the higher-duration risk it carries.

We considered Crisil 91 Day T-Bill Index and Crisil 10 Year Gilt Index for this analysis. “The 91-day T-bill and 10-year G-sec instruments are very liquid, and are the benchmark segments for money markets and long-term debt markets, respectively," said Bhushan Kedar, director–fixed income, Crisil Research.

The results are surprising as the 10-year return differential between T-bill and 10-year G-Sec indices is close to zero (see table). The rolling return here is the average of 10-year return rolled daily over 7 years between September 2015 and September 2022.

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During this period, the T-bill index outperformed the 10-year G-sec index a good 43% times (or on 1,091 days out of 2,558 days) with an average outperformance of 43 basis points. When the 10-year G-sec performed better than T-bill index, the average outperformance was just 38 basis points.

Funds’ performance

We also looked at the performance of liquid funds and medium- to long-duration funds on a rolling return basis during the same period (2015-2022).

While liquid funds invest in debt and money market securities with maturity of up to 91 days, medium to long duration funds invest in instruments with a duration of 4-7 years. The long-duration funds that invest in securities with a duration of more than 7 years are not considered as there are few funds with a long track record.

The analysis showed that the average 10-year rolling return of medium to long-duration funds stood at 7.6%, just 25 basis points higher than the liquid fund’s category.

A few experts argue that the period after 2015—which we considered for our analysis—has been very volatile for the debt market and could distort the whole picture. “Whenever you notice a narrow spread between the short and long-duration instruments, a lot of it is often due to the economic duress. After 2015, we have seen several events such as demonetization, the IL&FS crisis, and the contagion which continued in 2018-2019, and displacement of asset valuations in 2020 due to the outbreak of Covid-19. The gilt index was highly sensitive to all these events," said Nirav Karkera, head- research, Fisdom.

Having said that, the period before 2015 is not very rosy either based on the Crisil study in 2017 that compared the returns of 47 liquid funds and 36 long-term debt funds over 118 months since 2007. The study revealed that liquid funds match the performance of their long-term peers in multiple time frames. “The five-year annualized average monthly rolling return of liquid funds exceeded that of long-term debt funds 75% of the time (88 months)," said Jiju Vidyadharan, senior director, funds and fixed income, Crisil.

This data brings the question of the superiority of investing in long-duration funds to the fore. Further, the long-duration funds come at a higher cost. The average expense ratio (TER) of medium to long-duration and long funds is higher at 1.5% compared to 0.26%. The former also comes at a higher standard deviation at 4.7, compared to 1.19 for the latter.

Timing matters

All this is not to say that investing in long-term instruments or funds does not pay off at all. To generate a higher return, the timing of entry and exit into long-term debt funds matters. Rolling returns or the category averages take the mean returns which average out the ups and downs of returns during the select period. So, let’s take an example of two people who invested in both a liquid instrument and a 10-year gilt instrument at different times for a holding period of 10 years.

Investor 1 invested in January 2007 before the global financial crisis (GFC). After 10 years, in January 2017, the investments in the liquid instrument would have delivered 6.5% returns per annum, while the G-sec would return 7.3%.

Investor 2 invested in January 2009 post-GFC. The investments in 10-year G-sec would have underperformed the liquid instrument by a whopping 210 basis points. In 2019, the 10-year G-sec instrument delivered 4.6% per annum, while the liquid instrument generated 6.7% per annum.

Investor 1, who invested in the long-term debt paper in the high-yield environment before 2008, would have locked herself at a high-interest rate and benefitted from it. The second investor, who invested at the beginning of an upward cycle after the GFC, suffered from subdued returns , explains Joydeep Sen, an independent debt market analyst. In both scenarios, the liquid instrument generated a similar return but the difference between the 10-year G-sec returns is stark, emphasizing the importance of time of entry and exit in long-duration bonds.

Investor implications

In debt funds, the only way to generate higher returns is by taking credit risk but not duration risk, opines Saraogi. “Duration risk can be played by timing the cycle. It is clearly evident that fund manager themselves are finding it difficult to time it well. It becomes very difficult for retail investors to get it right," Saraogi added.

Even if you think you can time it well, experts believe that investments in long-duration funds should be only part of an investor’s satellite portfolio and not the core portfolio. Any investment made in long-duration debt funds to meet a specific financial goal should be moved to less risky liquid funds when the goal is nearing, say experts.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Satya Sontanam

Satya Sontanam is a senior content creator at Mint with a keen interest on data crunching, analysis and the story behind trends. She writes on personal finance including investments, regulations and data stories. Before joining Mint in December 2021, Satya worked as research analyst and also a personal finance writer at The Hindu BusinessLine. Satya is a qualified chartered accountant. In her free time, she enjoys doing yoga and listening to podcasts.
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