Unnerving movements for debt mutual funds investors!

Just last week my colleague, Divya explained the fiasco at Franklin Templeton Mutual Fund, which took a decision to abruptly wind down six debt mutual fund schemes, namely:

In all, the above debt mutual fund schemes had an AUM of Rs 30,854 crore as of March 31, 2020.

The fund house cited, “severe market dislocation and illiquidity in the fixed income space” caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, as the reason behind the decision.

Investors in these schemes are now left in the lurch: they cannot sell (nor buy) these funds and will have to rely on the fund house to get back their hard-earned money. Investors will have to hold their investments in these schemes until liquidity is available to the mutual fund house by either selling securities in the fund’s portfolio or receiving maturity proceeds.

Currently, a fact is, not just Franklin Templeton Mutual Fund, but debt mutual fund schemes of many other fund houses are have a remarkable exposure to stressed assets.

According to portfolios disclosed on March 31, 2020, mutual funds collectively held Rs 1.38 trillion of exposure to debt securities issued by Non-Banking Financial Companies (NBFCs). Approximately Rs 51,000 crore of the exposure in debt securities has a maturity profile of less than 3 months; and now, mutual funds fear that there will be defaults.

NBFCs and other corporate borrowers claim that they do not have enough liquidity to fulfil their obligations and have requested for additional time. Given that, rating downgrades from rating agencies look likely.

However, some companies are playing smart: they are approaching the Courts to prevent a rating downgrade, plus seeking a stay on sale of pledged shares. Of course, they are well within their right to approach the judicial authority or Courts and contest.

But the capital market regulator, SEBI seems to be in no mood in offering them any leeway. On the contrary, the regulator is asking the mutual fund industry to act against the issuer of securities who are possibly carrying high credit risk; facing asset quality problems.

Delays in repayments would mean the creation of more side-pockets by mutual funds. And in my view, more the losses investors suffer, more frustrating it will be for mutual fund houses and their investors. Eventually retail and High Net-worth Individuals, particularly, will lose confidence and may not be keen to invest in debt funds.

If you are wondering what has gone wrong, here’s everything you may like to know about liquidity, credit risk and the exposure of mutual funds to corporate debt in the present scenario.

If you remember, the capital market regulator had mandated large corporations to source at least 25% of their borrowings from the bond markets from the beginning of FY 2019. This move was expected to deepen Indian bond markets and reduces the stress on banks. Just a year later, the same move is proving fatal for companies that went to the bond markets to raise money.

Now that the COVID-19 lockdown has forced many business units to shut off temporarily or operate much below their optimal operational capacity with a skeletal staff, companies, including the large organisations that relied heavily on debt markets, are finding it difficult to honour maturity claims on Commercial Papers (CPs), Non-Convertible Debentures (NCDs), and Bonds.

They were hoping for an ‘at-par treatment’ with Banks when the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) offered a moratorium period to borrowers. But the RBI circular came to them as a shocker. The devil was in the details.

On March 27, 2020, the RBI issued a notification allowing a three-month moratorium on all outstanding term loans and working capital facilities on account of disruptions caused by the outbreak of coronavirus. This circular did not cover around 10 thousand NBFCs, who mainly depend on CPs, NCDs, and Bonds for their funding requirements.

As far as NBFCs are concerned, the RBI has already provided them with a liquidity facility through the banking channel. The RBI directed banks to utilise funds infused under Targeted Long Term Repo Operations (TLTRO) facility to invest in ‘investment-grade’ CPs, NCDs, and Bonds issued by NBFCs. Also, RBI mandated banks to allocate 50% of Rs 50,000 crore of liquidity introduced by way of TLTRO 2.0 to small and mid-size NBFCs and small finance banks.

But NBFCs seemed not too happy with just liquidity and many of them are now approaching courts to prevent rating downgrades. This is not a best practice for the industry, although fund houses may be well within their rights to contest.

Recently, Indiabulls Housing Finance was successful in receiving the interim order from Delhi High Court, throttling any coercive action against the housing finance company for its inability to repay its bondholders. The Delhi High Court will hear the case further on May 19, 2020.

This has added to the worries of mutual fund houses that now fear other NBFCs will follow the same path.

The capital market regulator, only recently (a few days ago) following the three moratorium by RBI (due to disruptions caused by COVID-19 pandemic) has relaxed the valuation norms for debt and money market instrument held by mutual funds vide a circular dated April 23, 2020, wherein it states as under:

Based on assessment, if the valuation agencies appointed by AMFI are of the view that the delay in payment of interest/principal or extension of the maturity of a security by the issuer has arisen solely due to COVID-19 pandemic lockdown and/or in light of the moratorium permitted by Reserve Bank of India (RBI) (vide notification no. RBI/2019-20/186, dated March 27, 2020) creating temporary operational challenges in servicing debt, then valuation agencies may not consider the same as a default for the purpose of valuation of money market or debt securities held by Mutual Funds.

However, in the scenario, as stated above, if there is any difference in the valuation of securities provided by two valuation agencies, the conservative valuation shall be accepted.

But then what is the point of coming up with these valuation norms as an afterthought, and not in close synchronisation when the RBI came with its notification a month ago?

The damage now is already done and companies are anyways approaching the Courts to prevent a rating downgrade.

Let’s say shares of a company are pledged and to recover the proceeds — if they cannot be sold due to a court order — then such lending would be as good as unsecured lending.

Also, why should that not be construed as an instance of deviation from the stated fundamental attributes of a debt mutual fund scheme? After all, mutual fund investors invest in debt fund schemes taking into account a certain level of risk. Change in the risk profile of a scheme is a change in the fundamental attribute/s.

According to India Ratings, NBFCs having the asset base of Rs 500 crore to 5,000 crore, largely fall between “A” and “BBB” rating categories.

The mid-path could be a decision on payment or deferring the payment in consultation with all stakeholders, including debenture trustees. The industry will require a blanket resolution because a case-to-case resolution approach is cumbersome and may create more chaos.

Unless the RBI takes a clear stance on NBFCs and other financial institutions, mutual fund houses are likely to feel the heat of redemptions. Suppose, there’s no further statement issued by the banking sector regulator; mutual funds will have to be prepared to handle large-scale defaults, which might look inevitable. After all, a majority of NBFCs’ customers are retail borrowers and they enjoy a moratorium on the EMI payment for 3-months. This has been the trickiest part for NBFCs.

While COVID-19 outbreak has been the genuine reason for the potential defaults this time, asset-liability mismatches of NBFCs are well-known. Many NBFCs have gone overboard with cheap credit available during stable market conditions. Their credit underwriting has been questioned widely. The industry has also witnessed belly-up instances such as IL&FS and DHFL. Many mutual fund houses have burned their fingers badly in such defaults.

At the time of writing this piece, to ease the liquidity pressure on mutual funds, the RBI today decided to provide a special liquidity facility of Rs 50,000 crore for mutual funds. Under this facility, the RBI will conduct repo operations of 90 days tenor at the fixed repo rate. This will be on-tap and open-ended, and banks can submit their bids to avail funding on any day from Monday to Friday (excluding holidays). The scheme is available from today i.e., April 27, 2020, till May 11, 2020, or up to utilization of the allocated amount, whichever is earlier. The Reserve Bank will review the timeline and amount, depending upon market conditions.

The RBI has stated further that the liquidity support availed under the Special Liquidity Facility for Mutual Funds shall be used by banks exclusively for meeting the liquidity requirements of mutual funds by, 1) extending loans; and (2) undertaking outright purchase of and/or repos against the collateral of investment-grade corporate bonds, CPs, debentures and certificates of Deposit (CDs) held by mutual funds.

Having taken this measure, keep in mind that it does not make investing in debt mutual funds risk-free. Considering the prevailing investment environment, you should stay away from mutual fund schemes whose portfolio characteristic appears compromised. Also, avoid credit risk funds and corporate bond funds as they are likely to be more vulnerable amidst the financial crisis followed by COVID-19 pandemic.

As a thumb rule: Choose mutual fund schemes from fund houses that follow prudent judicious investment processes and stringent risk-management systems.

In these uncertain times, it would be wise sticking to liquid funds and overnight funds while considering debt funds.

Our friends at Quantum Mutual Fund have highlighted the secret behind their debt management strategy which has helped them provide safety and liquidity to investors when it comes to investing in quantum funds. Don’t Worry, Quantum Liquid Fund always aims for Safety and Liquidity.

As with all financial matters, better be safe than sorry!

This article first appeared on PersonalFN here

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *