During the COVID-19 lockdown, individuals are losing patience — moving freely and not following the necessary social distancing. This lack of civic sense and maturity on their part is weakening our fight against the deadly contagion pathogen.

The capital markets, as a result, also has witnessed intense volatility and bears are running lose. Certain sections of investors, however, have shown tremendous maturity during these challenging times.

At a time when Foreign Portfolio Investors (FIIs) have net sold or dumped Indian equities (owing to markets worldwide falling sharply and margin calls being hit), domestic fund managers are looking for value-buying opportunities in the carnage of the markets.

It is also heartening to see retail and High Net-worth Individuals (HNIs) buying into various equity-oriented mutual funds in a lump sum as well as the SIP (Systematic Investment Plan) mode. Monthly SIP inflows have touched a record high in March 2020 and the SIP folios, too, surged to 3.12 crore.

However, in debt-oriented schemes, investors seem to be pressing the panic button. The mutual fund industry recorded a net outflow of Rs 1.95 trillion in March 2020. Barring Overnight Funds and Gilt Funds, all other sub-categories of debt mutual funds have reported an outflow in March 2020.

Advance tax payment obligations, deterioration in asset quality, potential risk of defaults in the COVID-19 lockdown, and heightened volatility in the Indian debt market are some of the key reasons for outflows from debt-oriented mutual schemes.

[Read: Why Investors Pulled Out Money from Debt Mutual Fund Schemes in March]

The massive outflows were also seen from the Liquid Funds and Arbitrage Funds.

Table 1: Action in March 2020

Mutual fund category Rs in Crore
Net outflows in March 2020 Net AUM as on March 31, 2020
Arbitrage funds -33,767 52,210
Liquid funds -1,10,037 3,34,725
Overnight funds 26,654 80,174

(Source: AMFI, PersonalFN Research)

Unprecedented redemptions in the Arbitrage Funds and Liquid Funds, as well as the net inflows recorded by the overnight funds, suggest that investors preferred safety over returns. As you know, liquidity is a key concern as the world continues to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some arbitrage schemes such as Tata Arbitrage Fund and ICICI Prudential Equity-Arbitrage Fund had stopped taking in fresh subscriptions in the third week of March 2020 for the lack of arbitrage opportunities as markets faced broad-based selling.

But now markets are finding some sort of stability and bouncing back — rallied over 20% from March lows – although the bears continue to run loose.

So, is it a time to consider arbitrage funds again?

Yes, I think so.

Arbitrage Funds aims to exploit the price differential in two different segments (spot and futures or cash and derivatives) of the equity market. They buy stocks in the spot market and sell in the future market simultaneously thereby making gains with the price differential (called the spread).

The differential usually is in sync with the prevailing interest rates in the economy; but depending on the market volatility, it could sometimes be higher as well. That being said, these are short-term opportunities that spring up due to lack of information to a set of market participants in one of the markets.

The capital market regulator’s mutual fund categorisation and rationalisation mandates that an Arbitrage Fund must strictly follow the arbitrage strategy and invest at least 65% of its total assets in equity & equity related instruments.

Since the transactions are in either direction, the positions are completely hedged. And the remaining 35% of the total asset is deployed in debt and money market instruments.

In March 2020, when the stock futures started quoting at a discount to the spot prices in the cash market, it was a concern. But now that we have seen some sharp up-moves in the Indian equity markets as the government has done relatively well in containing the spread of the deadly virus (compared to other nations) and thanks to the prompt fiscal measures also have been taken — both by the Ministry of Finance (the Rs 1.75 trillion package) and the Reserve Bank of India (by reducing policy rates sharply, keeping monetary policy stance ‘accommodative as long as it is necessary’, and ensuring enough liquidity in the system) — in my view, it would be perceived positively by the markets in times to come and enough arbitrage opportunities would be available. It is possible that Arbitrage Funds may even perform a tad better vis-a-vis Liquid Funds.

Table 2: Report Card of Arbitrage Fund, Liquid Funds and Short Duration Funds

Scheme category Returns (Absolute %)
1 Month 3 Months 6 Months 9 Months 1 Year
Ultra-Short Duration Fund 0.65 1.44 1.89 4.91 6.51
Arbitrage Fund 0.04 1.33 2.58 4.18 6.28
Liquid Fund 0.58 1.37 2.69 4.21 6.02
Overnight Fund 0.22 1.02 2.25 3.58 5.10
Short Duration Fund 1.43 1.97 3.45 5.06 5.00
Crisil Liquid Fund Index 0.49 1.40 2.83 4.43 6.32
Nifty 50 Arbitrage Index -0.17 0.85 2.02 3.62 5.80

Category average returns presented
Data as on April 17, 2020
(Source: ACE MF, PersonalFN Research)

Over the last one year, the returns generated by Arbitrage Funds have been quite satisfactory. In fact, these funds have outperformed those clocked by Liquid Funds. The 3-month returns clocked by Arbitrage Funds have been almost at par with Liquid Funds.

Do note that an Arbitrage Fund carries low risk and the returns depend on the market conditions and fund manager’s ability to reap rewards from arbitrage opportunities.

Short-Term Capital Gains (i.e. realised profits within a year) on arbitrage funds are taxed at 15%, while the Long-Term Capital Gains (i.e. gains made after staying invested for more than a year) are taxed at 10% for gains above Rs 1 lakh in a financial year.

To park money for the short-term for an investment time horizon up to 1-year, you may consider investing in an Arbitrage Fund.

And if you have an extreme short-term time horizon (of 3 to 6 months), consider a Liquid Fund with high-quality debt papers, which does not have high exposure to Commercial Papers (issued by private entities).

Alternatively, if you wish to park in a much safer category, you would be better off investing in an Overnight Funds.

Happy Investing!

This article first appeared on PersonalFN here

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