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Mutual Fund Investing: Does buying during collapse make maximum wealth?

Mutual Fund Investing: Does buying during collapse make maximum wealth?

Mutual Fund Investing: Does buying during collapse make maximum wealth?
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By Surabhi Upadhyay  Apr 13, 2020 6:08:18 PM IST (Updated)

The Indian retail investor has understood that booking losses in panic is not the best course of action during a market crash.

‘Long-term wealth creation’, ‘Buy the panic’, ‘Stay the course’. These phrases are often heard during a market crash and are no longer alien to the Indian retail investor who has come a long, long way in the country’s personal finance growth story. From a time when 'investment' was equivalent to simply opening a Fixed Deposit account in the friendly neighbourhood bank branch, to an age of seamless digital finance where you can buy into the market collapse from the comfort of your living room even during a national lockdown with simply the click of a button, the journey has been astounding. And the evidence of the evolution is there in the industry numbers.

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March 2020: Investors keep the faith
Retail investors remained unfazed in the midst of the COVID pandemonium during March 2020, even as they saw the market plunge a savage 35 percent in a matter of days. Contrary to trends seen in previous crashes, equity funds hardly saw net redemptions in March 2020. In fact, the total monthly inflow in equity funds swelled to Rs 11,485 crore – the highest in the last one year and a 7 percent increase over February 2020. Not just that, inflows into systematic investment plans or SIPs remained intact and in fact topped the monthly run rate of Rs 8,500 crore witnessed over the last 3 months, coming in at Rs 8,640 crore in the month gone by.
Perhaps the reasoning lies in history. They say the market is the best teacher. Having experienced the global financial crisis of 2008 and the equally dramatic rallies that followed in March 2009 and the post-election surge of May 2014 and 2019, the retail investor took the fall as a buying opportunity. Of course, year-end factors like tax saving would have also contributed to the higher net inflows in March. Judging by the behaviour seen so far, one can infer that the Indian retail investor has understood that booking losses in panic is not the best course of action during a market crash. Now that’s a great start. But it surely isn’t the end.
The real test of investor maturity and tenacity begins now. Will we, our parents, uncles, aunts, siblings and friends continue to hold on even if the market remains choppy and erratic for the next several months? Will we push back the urge to press the redeem button? Will we continue our monthly SIPs?
Equity returns: A long wait
As the retail investor looks to the future and ponders over the above questions, he/she is also looking at data. Run a screen on mutual fund performance over the last few years, and some staggering trends come to light. The numbers can stump the average individual at first glance, which is why the reasoning and context is very important. Let’s look at a fairly patient time frame of 5 years. Guess which funds have given the best returns during this phase? If your answer is equity, then you’re in for disappointment. Gold funds top the charts in terms of performance over the last 5 years with a return of 10.3 percent.
The next 4 best performing fund categories over the last 5 years are all fixed income funds – 10-year GILT funds, banking & PSU debt funds and long duration debt funds with returns between 7.7 percent and 9.4 percent. Now you’d wonder how equity funds fared during this time. The answer: not too great. Largecap and Multicap funds are up 1.7 percent on an average and midcap funds are up just 1.1 percent going by the annualised returns of the last 5 years. Smallcap funds have in fact given a negative 0.2 percent return since 2015.
If one looks at the last 3 years, the equity story is even more dismal with largecap funds up just 0.3 percent and midcap funds actually down 4.7 percent. Gold and debt funds again trump equity over the last 3-year period with just one category of equity funds – IT sector funds making it to the top performers tally.
Mutual fund returns: Last 10 years
Now investing is a long-term art. So let’s shift the time horizon to 10 years. Which are the funds that have done the best in the decade gone by? The picture here as well makes one think. Largecap funds have returned 6.7 percent at an average in the last decade. Multicap funds have done better at 7.8 percent and midcap funds score the best at a 10 percent CAGR return.
Interestingly, smallcap funds, at a category average level, have not managed to beat midcap funds in the last 10 years with average returns being 7.4 percent.
Now let’s look at returns from debt funds in the same 10 year period. Corporate bond funds and liquid funds have given an average return of 7.8 percent while dynamic bond funds have returned 8 percent.
These startling numbers can lead to a very obvious question – why take the risk of equity if debt is giving you similar or even higher returns over a decade?
Here’s where you need to pause and supplement data with context and  reasoning.
“There are lies, dammed lies, and then there are statistics!” quips Kshitiz Mahajan of Complete Circle Investments. He argues that the return analysis will be vastly different if we pick the time frame of February 2010 to February 2020 i.e the comparison before the COVID crisis hit markets.
“If I change the date from April 10, 2020 to February 14, 2020 and compare the last decade, then midcap funds have returned 11.5 percent and smallcap funds have done even better with a CAGR of 14.4 percent,” explains Mahajan.
The argument finds resonance with Radhika Gupta, CEO, Edelweiss Asset Management. “Looking at rolling returns is a much better way of judging a fund’s performance rather than considering point to point absolute returns. Rolling returns give a fair idea of performance without letting short-term market spikes skew the analysis,” says Gupta.
Point taken. But what about the more fundamental question of asset class performance? At a glance, the 10-year data gives the impression that debt has done better than equity over the last decade. While that may be optically true considering the time frame we are comparing, Mahajan argues that one must keep taxation in mind while comparing returns. “Net of tax, equity funds have still done better than debt as pre-2018 capital gains have been grandfathered whereas debt funds still attract tax at the slab rate with indexation,” says Mahajan.
Let’s also remember here a third important aspect. Debt funds aren’t exactly risk free. So for instance, the 8 percent return one sees in dynamic bond funds over the last decade, is accompanied by interest rate risk. Similarly IL&FS, Vodafone-Idea, DHFL and several other recent episodes have taught us that credit risk funds carry their own element of debt payback i.e credit risk. Thus the return on fixed income funds may not be as risk free and simple as a fixed deposit.
So what's the conclusion?
The last 10 years have been a very eventful ride for the Indian investor. The post GFC recovery, a current account deficit crisis, govt changes, trade wars, and now a never seen before pandemic. Through it all, one fact stands tall - the path to superior equity returns is neither straight line, nor risk free. But common sense as well as history tell us that the greatest wealth is made by buying during times of total chaos and collapse, and then simply having the tenacity of holding on for the next several years. So while you ponder over reams of return analysis and mutual fund comparison data with your financial advisor, perhaps it’s a good idea to first ask yourself the basic question – what kind of a person are you and what are your operational realities? What is your risk profile and what is your holding capacity? The answer will be perhaps the starting point for most things in life, including your financial future.
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