Can we use returns to classify mutual funds in terms of risk?

Published: June 22, 2022 at 6:00 am

Mutual fund NAV risk is measured using the standard deviation. This can be thought of as the average deviation of a monthly return from the average monthly return. Higher the value, the higher the risk. Unfortunately, this is not an intuitive number like the return. So this begs the question, is it possible to classify mutual fund risk using their returns?

Let us consider L&T Overnight Fund. Over the last 3Y (as of 6th June 2022) its annualized return is 3.435% (this is the CAGR). Over this 3Y period, the average monthly return is 0.282%.

Now we annualize this monthly return: = (1+0.282%)^12-1 = 3.437%. Notice that there is practically no difference between the CAGR and the annualized monthly return. Ideally, in the case of a fixed-income instrument with no market volatility, the CAGR and the annualized monthly return will be identical.

As the market volatility increases, the difference between the two quantities also increases. This is a direct return-based volatility measure.

Now consider IDBI Hybrid Equity  Fund.


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  • 3Y CAGR: 9.339%
  • Annualised monthly returns: 10.863%.
  • Difference: 1.52%. Notice the significant increase in the difference.

This difference is a return-based measure of mutual fund volatility. This data is readily available in mutual fund rating portals. For example, on any Value Research fund page, the 3Y return is available in the “Peer Comparison” comparison table. The annualized average monthly return is available in the “Risk Measures (%)” table.

The graph below shows the difference between annualised average monthly return and 3Y annualized return (y-axis) vs Standard deviation (x-axis) for 874 mutual funds.

Difference between annualised average monthly return and 3Y annualized return (y-axis) vs Standard deviation (x-axis)
Difference between annualised average monthly return and 3Y annualized return (y-axis) vs Standard deviation (x-axis)

The straight line is the standard deviation reference line. The return difference is rather subdued than the standard deviation for low values and quickly picks up. This means that the return difference is not a good measure to differentiate a money market fund from an overnight fund. It will work better when comparing an equity fund with a debt fund.

For a detailed classification of risk based on standard deviation see: How can I tell if a mutual fund is less/more risky than other funds?

It must be understood that both the standard deviation and return difference are measures of volatility. They are not indicators of the underlying cause of the volatility! They cannot measure the latent risk that does not manifest in the fund’s NAV. In other words, volatility is realised risk. There are many other unrealised factors which cannot be quantified via the NAV. See: Basics: What is the difference between risk and volatility?

A risk scale based on annualised monthly return minus CAGR

  1. Get the 3Y CAGR and annualised monthly returns of 874 funds over the last 3Y across 58 scheme classifications (some thematic funds are individually classified, hence the large number).
  2. Compute, return difference = annualized monthly return minus 3Y CAGR
  3. Find the min and max return difference of each category
  4. Find the simple average of this min and max.
  5. So now we have a table of categories and avg. return differences
  6. Find the average (m) and standard deviation (s) of the above set
  7. Funds that lie above m+s we classify as very high risk
  8. Funds that lie between m and m+s we classify as high risk
  9. Funds that lie between m-s and m we classify as medium risk
  10. Funds that lie below m-s we classify as low risk

This is a pictorial representation of the classification. As mentioned above, the low-risk classification is not accurate. Some of the category placements are non-intuitive.

A risk scale based on annualised monthly return minus CAGR
A risk scale based on annualised monthly return minus CAGR

These are the scheme-wise ratings.

CategoryRating based on return difference
Arbitrage Fundlow risk
Liquidlow risk
Overnight Fundlow risk
Money Marketlow risk
Floating Ratelow risk
Ultra Short Durationlow risk
Banking and PSU Fundlow risk
Corporate Bondlow risk
Short & Mid Termlow risk
Debtlow risk
Gilt Fund with a 10-year constant durationlow risk
Medium to Long Durationlow risk
Long Durationlow risk
Low Durationmedium risk
Dynamic Bondmedium risk
Short Durationmedium risk
Equity Savingsmedium risk
Conservative Hybrid Fundmedium risk
Debt Orientedmedium risk
Medium Durationmedium risk
Dynamic Asset Allocationmedium risk
Balanced Advantagemedium risk
Multi Asset Allocationmedium risk
Solution Oriented – Children’s Fundmedium risk
MNCmedium risk
Solution Oriented – Retirement Fundmedium risk
Aggressive Hybrid Fundmedium risk
Pharma & Health Caremedium risk
Globalmedium risk
ConsumptionHigh Risk
Equity OrientedHigh Risk
Large Cap FundHigh Risk
Dividend YieldHigh Risk
Index – Nifty Next 50High Risk
Index Funds – OtherHigh Risk
Flexi Cap FundHigh Risk
Index – SensexHigh Risk
Thematic FundHigh Risk
Mid Cap FundHigh Risk
Equity Linked Savings SchemeHigh Risk
GoldHigh Risk
Index – NiftyHigh Risk
Focused FundHigh Risk
ContraHigh Risk
Service IndustryHigh Risk
Large & Mid CapHigh Risk
Energy & PowerHigh Risk
Multi Cap FundHigh Risk
ETFs – OtherHigh Risk
TechnologyHigh Risk
InfrastructureHigh Risk
Value FundHigh Risk
FoFs (Overseas)Very High Risk
Small cap FundVery High Risk
IndexVery High Risk
Banks & Financial ServicesVery High Risk
AutoVery High Risk
Credit Risk FundVery High Risk

In summary, while in principle mutual fund volatility can be measured in terms of “annualized monthly return minus CAGR” it is not as sensitive as the standard deviation for short-term debt mutual funds. It can however be used as a crude measure by investors to appreciate how volatile an equity fund or a hybrid fund is.

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