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How can I tell if a mutual fund is less/more risky than other funds?

When we select a mutual fund there are two implicit questions we would like answered. (1) How risky is this fund? (20 How risky is this fund relative to other funds? The mutual fund riskometer is supposed to give us a quick idea about this. Unfortunately, the riskometer has evolved into a cumbersome and unhelpful beast. A discussion on a simple and classic alternative.

It must be understood that the standard deviation is a measure of volatility. It is not an indicator of the underlying cause of the volatility! It 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?

The current SEBI riskometer has six levels:

i. Low Risk
ii. Low to Moderate Risk
iii. Moderate Risk
iv. Moderately High Risk
v. High Risk and
vi. Very High Risk

There is nothing wrong with these levels but the way in which a fund is assigned a level is quite complex. SEBI directs using market capitalization, impact cost and volatility (among others!) of individual securities for fixing the scheme risk.

what is the problem with this? UTI Nifty index fund is marked as “principal will be at very high risk’. if a sectorally diversified index is given the highest risk grade there is no way to differentiate it from a sectoral index which obviously has higher risk.

Also, scheme risk levels can change from month to month which is difficult for most investors to appreciate.

A simpler, stabler alternative is to use the scheme’s standard deviation over a period of time (say the last three years).  the standard deviation is a well-known measure of volatility and was most likely used as the primary metric in previous versions of the riskometer.

Volatility as mentioned earlier is a measure of risk after the risk has manifested in the NAV. There are several scheme risks (eg. Credit rating risk; redemptions risk, arbitrage risks) that may not manifest in the NAV but should be considered as risks nonetheless.

SEBI has come up with a separate risk scale based on credit rating (see the above link for details). Cumbersome as it is, it is a step in the right direction. We shall not cover hidden risks in this article. It just so happens that for the time period considered (the last three years) credit rating risks are seen in the NAV.

A risk scale based on scheme standard deviation

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

This is a pictorial representation of the classification.

A risk scale based on scheme standard deviation

These are the scheme-wise ratings.

Category Risk Grade
Overnight Fund Low Risk
Liquid Low Risk
Arbitrage Fund Low Risk
Money Market Low Risk
Floating Rate Low Risk
Corporate Bond Low Risk
Banking and PSU Fund Low Risk
Short & Mid Term Low Risk
Ultra Short Duration Low Risk
Debt ETF Low Risk
Gilt Fund with 10 year constant duration Low Risk
Medium to Long Duration Low Risk
Long Duration Low Risk
Low Duration Low Risk
Dynamic Bond Medium Risk
Short Duration Medium Risk
Debt Oriented FOF Medium Risk
Medium Duration Medium Risk
Conservative Hybrid Fund Medium Risk
Equity Savings Medium Risk
Dynamic Asset Allocation Medium Risk
Solution Oriented – Retirement Fund Medium Risk
Balanced Advantage Medium Risk
Solution Oriented – Children’s Fund Medium Risk
Multi Asset Allocation Medium Risk
MNC High Risk
Global High Risk
Aggressive Hybrid Fund High Risk
Pharma & Health Care High Risk
Consumption High Risk
Large Cap Fund High Risk
Equity Oriented High Risk
Dividend Yield High Risk
Index Funds – Other High Risk
Index – Nifty Next 50 High Risk
Flexi Cap Fund High Risk
Mid Cap Fund High Risk
Equity Linked Savings Scheme High Risk
Index – Sensex High Risk
Focused Fund High Risk
Gold High Risk
Service Industry High Risk
Contra High Risk
Large & Mid Cap High Risk
Index – Nifty High Risk
ETFs – Other High Risk
Energy & Power High Risk
Multi Cap Fund High Risk
FoFs (Overseas) High Risk
Infrastructure High Risk
Thematic Fund Very High Risk
Small cap Fund Very High Risk
Technology Very High Risk
Value Fund Very High Risk
Index ETF Very High Risk
Banks & Financial Services Very High Risk
Auto Very High Risk
Credit Risk Fund Very High Risk

This classification is far from perfect but does a reasonable job of conveying absolute and relative volatility levels. The classification is also not permanent. The categories may move up and down depending on the 3Y window considered.

It is amusing to see that a credit risk fund has the highest avg standard deviation possibly due to multiple defaults.

As mentioned above, the latent risks, that is for example when a credit default does not occur, cannot be captured by using standard deviation. The individual scheme rating profile (portfolio weights for each rating allocation)  is necessary for this. We recommend using our monthly debt mutual fund screener for such data.


This is the table of scheme categories and avg of min and max standard deviations used.

Category Avg
Overnight Fund 0.0656%
Liquid 0.0770%
Arbitrage Fund 0.1451%
Money Market 0.3230%
Floating Rate 0.4772%
Corporate Bond 0.7949%
Banking and PSU Fund 0.8022%
Short & Mid Term 1.0574%
Ultra Short Duration 1.1091%
Debt ETF 1.2071%
Gilt Fund with 10 year constant duration 1.2898%
Medium to Long Duration 1.4706%
Long Duration 1.6028%
Low Duration 1.9123%
Dynamic Bond 2.1201%
Short Duration 2.1639%
Debt Oriented FOF 2.5739%
Medium Duration 2.7628%
Conservative Hybrid Fund 2.8615%
Equity Savings 2.9166%
Dynamic Asset Allocation 3.5758%
Solution Oriented – Retirement Fund 4.2455%
Balanced Advantage 4.5830%
Solution Oriented – Children’s Fund 4.7552%
Multi Asset Allocation 4.8606%
MNC 5.4908%
Global 5.7120%
Aggressive Hybrid Fund 5.7278%
Pharma & Health Care 5.8094%
Consumption 5.9672%
Large Cap Fund 6.0169%
Equity Oriented 6.1502%
Dividend Yield 6.2219%
Index Funds – Other 6.5155%
Index – Nifty Next 50 6.6253%
Flexi Cap Fund 6.8748%
Mid Cap Fund 6.9440%
Equity Linked Savings Scheme 7.0114%
Index – Sensex 7.0936%
Focused Fund 7.1771%
Gold 7.1866%
Service Industry 7.2213%
Contra 7.2514%
Large & Mid Cap 7.2697%
Index – Nifty 7.3067%
ETFs – Other 7.6026%
Energy & Power 7.6231%
Multi Cap Fund 7.6637%
FoFs (Overseas) 7.8338%
Infrastructure 8.0191%
Thematic Fund 8.1773%
Small cap Fund 8.2091%
Technology 8.2134%
Value Fund 9.0379%
Index ETF 9.1176%
Banks & Financial Services 9.2307%
Auto 9.6362%
Credit Risk Fund 12.0610%

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Pattabiraman editor freefincalDr M. Pattabiraman(PhD) is the founder, managing editor and primary author of freefincal. He is an associate professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. He has over nine years of experience publishing news analysis, research and financial product development. Connect with him via Twitter or Linkedin or YouTube. Pattabiraman has co-authored three print books: (1) You can be rich too with goal-based investing (CNBC TV18) for DIY investors. (2) Gamechanger for young earners. (3) Chinchu Gets a Superpower! for kids. He has also written seven other free e-books on various money management topics. He is a patron and co-founder of “Fee-only India,” an organisation for promoting unbiased, commission-free investment advice.

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