CoVID19

NOT a Contagion – Impact of the FT Debt Debacle

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Introduction
Last week, Franklin Templeton India funds, in the debt category, went into freeze with investors in 6 of the large schemes locked out of redemptions and any sort of movement till further notice. This has come at a distressing time of CoVID19 crises where incomes of individuals, businesses, and MSME’s have been severely impacted. The investors in these funds are severely impacted due to their dependence on these funds for their immediate or medium-term cash flows and now above all the safety of their monies. In some cases, it could be most of the savings/corpus that has been put to work. The investment rationale for most investors in these funds have been
1. The general safety of such category of funds
2. Getting regular incomes on their investment
3. General faith in the system and/or
4. Established product type.
While this might be the case, in good times or bad the onus of safety of investors’ fund lies with himself and the rule of “Caveat Emptor” or “Buyer Beware” always prevails. This is true for any investment or generally parting of monies from an investor to a third person.
The FT Debt Debacle
The situation with Franklin Templeton funds could have happened with any other AMC given the dislocation in the financial markets and the positioning of the funds in the current market environment.
For starters, Franklin debt funds were positioned to deliver higher returns as compared with competition and thereby were invested into marginally higher risk than the general markets. This strategy works well under most circumstances given that liquidity and funds flows keep investors and borrowers from accessing / rolling over monies quickly.
Secondly, the line between swimming in the middle of the pool to the deep end of the pool is often non-existent (not even blurred). This results in asset managers taking marginally higher risk without any commensurate return benefit. This is obvious in hindsight and might appear rationale during normal times. Both for investors and asset managers. In the case of FT funds, most investments were in risky papers without commensurate returns.
Thirdly, the diversification in asset managers strategy on funds ought to save the day. Unfortunately, the asset manager had not differentiated between its medium-term funds and ultra-short-term funds, using the same strategy across these funds. Clearly, the investor has been taken for a royal ride here, for no fault of his.
Finally, most of us are guilty of being slightly complacent when things are going to get rough. The first indication of the FT issue was evident when in a couple of these funds’ exposure to Vodafone and Yes Bank papers were side pocketed in 2019. Prudence dictates that the troubled ship be abandoned before the stampede begins.

How are we impacted, and are we prepared?
The current CoVID19 pandemic has been mild so far and there are numerous reasons – including on-time assessment and steps taken, higher immunity, sunshine factor, etc. There is much literature on the topic in the public domain. The financial impact is still yet to come to full-blown proportions but can be assessed individually by each one of us. The individual and collective response to the situation is developing in nature and as weeks go by, the complete impact of the same would be evident.
There is a great economic impact on several direct sectors such as tourism and aviation, transportation and logistics, and MSME’s. Stage II of the financial contagion (Risk Aversion) is being felt across businesses and individuals alike. The central bank (RBI) and capital market regulator (The SEBI) has so far responded to the situation like other peers across the globe. Stage III of complete liquidity freeze and volume collapse is unlikely to happen soon in India given the evolving situation and talks about normalcy returning in a phased manner soon. The systemic liquidity so far has been managed; however, the deeper impact could be felt if the situation lasts longer than everyone is prepared for.
Most of the participants are barely prepared for such emergency situations which is all-pervasive and systemic. And yet some sectors/participants are better than those who are severely impacted. Staples, non-durables, and certain services have been relatively smooth, so far. The lessons from the current episode for individuals and institutions should be to be prepared for a war-like situation for 4-6 months during any market cycle. This means putting up safety nets around – Liquidity, business/income continuity, risk management, back-up plan (secondary work-related stuff), and communication. For instance, unscheduled maintenance for industries, skill upgrade for workforce or individuals, and strategic planning for normalcy. All these and more should be a part of any individual or business plan when there is still time.
Conclusion
From an individual perspective, investors who are now stuck into the current frozen FT debt funds; the following things are necessary.
1. Access your liquidity conditions and work on a plan to sort it out. There is a great likelihood that your money would be returned soon
2. Ask questions around your investment methods and know why you ended up in the current situation. If only a small portion of your overall investment is in these funds, you have already done a good job.
3. No, there is NO reason to panic and start pulling out of every conceivable investment, since that way you could be creating a chain reaction and worse you will end up jeopardizing your objective (goals) and your return profile

For those who have no exposure to FT funds frozen or have FT equity funds, it might be a good time to reassess your exposure. While that might be the case, if your liquidity profile, asset allocation and goal planning is mapped, there is little concern for you. There is no point in losing sleep over things in which everyone is in the same boat and you are well prepared than others. Chances are you will come out stronger than most.

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