One advice about investing in debt mutual funds that never made any kind of sense to me is: "pick a debt mutual fund whose maturity profile matches your investment horizon". You will find this in many articles online and here is why I think it is plain wrong.
Say you wanted to invest in a fixed deposit or a recurring deposit. What investment duration would you choose? Obviously, you would want the FD or RD to mature just before you need the money. The same is true of individual bonds or even closed-ended debt funds like fixed maturity plans (more on FMPs later).
A debt mutual fund invests in bonds of different types and duration. Some trade the bonds before they mature and some hold them until maturity and some do both.
Higher the duration of the bond, the more volatile it is. The more susceptible it is to interest rate movements and credit downgrades or defaults.
Let us for simplicity consider an open-ended fund that holds bonds until maturity. Debt income funds and corporate bonds funds are examples of these.
The maturity profile of a debt fund is a list of all the bonds it holds and their maturity dates. This is information is neither easy to access (not all fund factsheets include this, but morningstar has this), nor easy to process (50- 100 bonds or so).
So instead of a list, the average portfolio maturity is listed. This is a weighted average of bond maturities. A bond with more exposure will influence the average more. However, this hardly illuminating.
Take the case of Franklin India Corporate Bond Fund. It typically has an average maturity of about 3-Y years. However, at any given point in time, it can have bonds maturing a few months from now, to a few years from now (more of these).
So if I buy this fund today, because my investment tenure is say 4 years, the portfolio will have a basket of bonds maturing at different points in time - some next week (because they were purchased a long time back), some next month, next year etc.
So as they mature, the fund manager will add fresh bonds of different tenure.
The key point to recognise is: at any point in time during the next four years, the average portfolio maturity is typically 3-4Y. So it always holds bonds of that ~ duration.
What has changed is my risk tolerance. When I started out, I could handle the volatility associated with 3-4Y Avg. maturity. However, as time progresses and my intended redemption date nears, I cannot and should not be exposed to bonds of that duration.
This is the simple reason why it is poor advice to match investment tenure with maturity profile of the bond.
Suppose I had chosen an ultra short-term fund with a maturity profile of 3-6 months for my goal of 4 years. At any point in time, the bonds in the fund will mature in a few months. The associated volatility is way lower. In this case, I can afford to hold the fund for 4 years - until I need money.
This crude depiction sums this up.
How about the reward? By choosing a fund with shorter maturity profile, will the reward be lower?
Well, the answer depends on your definition of reward. No great wealth is going to be built with debt funds (alone), certainly not much over four years. So I would consider peaceful sleep as my primary rewards. As for returns,
As for returns, it does not depend on duration alone. The quality of bonds held matter. A BB bond will offer higher returns than an AAA bond. Would you then choose a BB bond in the hope that the issuer will not default?
It is silly to assume one type of fund will always return more than the other. These are market linked products and can go either way.
If my goal is 20 years away, and I don't mind some volatility, Franklin Corporate Bond can be chosen. Is it a better choice than an ultra short term fund - I don't know.
To sum it up: Matching investment duration with maturity profile of a fund is simply flawed. It ignores risk and has a simplistic notion of reward.
What should investors new to debt funds do?
Stay away from any debt fund with an average maturity profile greater than one year.
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