How to book profits in your mutual fund portfolio

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With the Sensex zooming past 60k, the question that many of you ask is whether you should book profits in your mutual fund portfolio and whether we think the market is peaking. We have always held that for mutual fund investors, it is easier to make ‘rebalance’ calls based on where your portfolio is currently, rather than where the market will be. 

Rebalancing or shifting from one asset class to another based on your original plan sounds too simple compared with predicting when the markets will peak or knowing when the markets have bottomed out. So, most of us refuse to trust rebalancing as an effective portfolio management tool. 

We wrote a very detailed guide on how to rebalance your portfolio in May 2020. We are republishing the same here with some changes. Hope many of you who joined us later find this a useful guide.  While this discussion is most relatable to mutual fund portfolios, you can apply the principles to any combination of products – as long as the focus is on asset allocation.

How to book profits in your mutual fund portfolio

Is booking profit the same as rebalancing?

Many of us use the above terms interchangeably and we have too, in our title 😊 Rebalancing is booking profits and more. But many of you confuse reviewing a portfolio and rebalancing to be the same. There is a difference. So, let’s establish some clear definitions of what we mean:

Rebalancing: Rebalancing is essentially re-aligning the asset allocation weights in your portfolio to bring them back to your original level or the desired level you fix it at. For example, if you started out with a 60:40 portfolio of equity and debt and it becomes 70:30, then selling equity and redeploying in debt to bring it back to 60:40 is called rebalancing.  

Reviewing/Changing funds is not rebalancing – Many of you use the term ‘rebalancing’ to denote review of your funds. That is, you want to know whether to sell a fund that is not performing and invest in a better fund. We call that ‘review’.  Review does not seek to change your asset allocation. You replace funds on a like-for-like basis. However, while rebalancing, you can definitely weed out bad performers as part of the rebalancing process. So ideally, a review will be necessary while you rebalance.

Reallocation: When you decide to change or shuffle your asset allocation to make it riskier or to reduce the risk in your portfolio, we call it reallocation. For example, let’s assume you had a 70:30 portfolio. By the time you are, say, 56, you want to slowly reduce the equity component and move to income earning options or lower risk debt options. In this case, you are re-allocating your portfolio – i.e. shifting from equity to debt, either gradually or in one shot. This can change the risk profile of your portfolio.

Let us now get into the act of rebalancing.

The act of rebalancing

All of you wish to be sounded off when the market is at a peak so that you can book profits. You also wish to know when to invest more, when the market falls. Since this is not an easy task, rebalancing is often a good proxy to fulfil this wish. But that is not the primary job of rebalancing. Rebalance seeks to do the following:

#1 Objective

  • One, it can ensure that you stick to your asset allocation and thereby keep your portfolio risk even
  • Second, it helps to be periodically booking profits in an inflated asset (overvalued asset class) and redeploying in a deflated one (undervalued one). Indirectly, you will be selling high and buying low, without having to watch the market level every time.

#2 When to use

Rebalancing seeks to reduce massive swings (falls) in your portfolio but as a side-effect will also curtail some amount of growth in a prolonged rallying market. This is something you need to be aware of.

Therefore, it is our view that rebalancing has a larger role to play in portfolios with goals less than 10 years. This is because over a longer period, there is a higher chance that your portfolio reacts less to market swings. Over shorter time frames there isn’t much time to recover from deep shocks. 

In other words, if you have a goal of over 10 years and short-term swings don’t bother you, then rebalancing is not a ‘must do’. You can well hold and allow compounding to happen uninterrupted. You can weed out underperformers alone, where required, and replace them. 

Of course, you might want to practice rebalancing as a hygiene, irrespective of what time frame you have, but know the limitation that we mentioned in terms of curtailing some growth. Our illustration further down will make that clear.

Now, let us get into the act of rebalancing:

  1. Checking your portfolio on whether it needs rebalancing can be an annual affair. Take calendar beginning or end or even a fiscal year end but stick to it consistently every year.
  2. A minimal deviation in each asset class (from your original allocation) does not call for rebalancing. It will lead to unnecessary tax impacts and exit loads. You can use our Asset Rebalancing Tool to know how much your portfolio has deviated from your original allocation.
  3. Keep a thumb rule of over 5 percentage points deviation in any of the asset class to trigger a rebalancing on your side. There is nothing very scientific about this. Starting this level of deviation, your portfolio would actually begin to seem inflated in an asset class (say equity) and therefore hint that it is overvalued.
  4. If your portfolio has not crossed the above threshold but is at the verge of crossing, you can still do a rebalancing if you see that the market is rallying sharply (like 2007 end in our illustration later).
  5. Once you identify that your portfolio needs rebalancing, review your funds next. You can use our MF Review tool for this and exit the underperformers – depending on whether your portfolio requires equity or debt to be reduced. Funds that are a sell on our tool can be used to exit or reduced. If there are no sells, the holds can be used to prune.
  6. If your equity has risen and you have no underperforming funds, based on our MF Review tool, see which category has inflated more (midcap or small cap or large cap) and accordingly reduce.
  7. If your equity has fallen, like it has in the illustration below (in 2008), then bring back your category allocation in large caps/flexicaps and midcaps to where it was before. If the market correction spooks you, add only index funds (check Prime funds for our recommendations). This will ensure you don’t have to take any call on whether midcaps will come back sooner or languish.
  8. When debt is inflated, you might often find that it is either from high duration funds (gilt, dynamic bond) or risky funds. Prune those (of course after first applying the rule for underperforming funds).
  9. When you need to add to debt (reducing equity), do not try to take duration or credit calls. Use a combination of high-quality short duration and corporate bond funds or add some to even the existing liquid funds in your portfolio. It is better to spread across time duration. That way, you will remain neutral to interest rate risks.
  10. Also, booking some profits and keeping it in liquid funds will come in handy to redeploy when the next correction in equity happens. Please note that we cannot put a number to this as much depends on whether you already hold liquid funds or not. In general 5-10% of liquid funds or overnight funds (outside of emergency needs) in your long-term portfolio is good to have, when you book profits in equity.
  11. An important point when you are increasing exposure to an existing fund: make sure the exposure of that individual fund, in the case of equity, is not in excess of 20-25% of your portfolio (does not apply to index funds) in the case of debt, not over 10%-20% . Introduce a new fund, if you have an already concentrated portfolio. Please note that this is subject to individual limits you might have for midcaps or say high-risk debt funds (not over 10%) and so on.
  12. All of the above rules apply when you hold gold too. 

The illustration below gives a simple example of how rebalancing helped. This is based on lumpsum investments. With SIPs, rebalancing may be a further rare occurrence, since you are averaging already. Please note that this illustration does not also consider taxes. 

The illustration above tells you how your wealth may grow slower in years like 2007, because you rebalanced. This is because you booked out a bit earlier in 2006, even as the rally lasted for up to a year post that.

But it also tells you how you would have tackled the fall much better in 2008. And again, because you averaged (rebalanced in end 2008) by deploying more into equity when the markets fell in 2008, your returns would have been higher when the uptick happened in 2009.

Investing fresh money to rebalance

The rebalancing that we discussed thus far assumes that you make do with the existing corpus. Many of you ask us whether the tax impact will not be very high when you do rebalancing. What you need to keep in mind is that the threshold of 5 percentage points (over original level) we have given will very rarely occur in a space of 1 year. It is only in years such as 2007 that you will see a rebalancing called for within a short span. 

So, you will most likely be holding funds which have fully or partly (if SIP is running) crossed both exit load and STCG periods. You will not have much to worry on this count.

But if you do not wish to sell or have additional money to invest, instead of adjusting within your portfolio, you can deploy afresh in the undervalued asset class instead of selling in the over-valued asset. This will assuage your concerns on tax implication. But note the following:

  • If you are investing fresh sums (and not rebalancing with existing money), we would prefer fresh investment for equity alone(where equity has fallen).This is because when equity falls, you know you are value averaging. However, in most cases when debt falls, it is because equity is inflated and not because debt is significantly undervalued.
  • There will be rare instances of debt undervaluation due to fall in your gilt funds or dynamic bond funds (high rate scenario). But these are hard for you to identify. Your debt might even have fallen because of some high-risk funds seeing sharp NAV falls. Hence, it can be risky to think debt is undervalued and pump in more fresh money. This is why we earlier suggested that you stick to safe funds, without duration or credit calls when you re-deploy in debt.

Please note that there will be many other smaller issues you will face when you try to do rebalancing. I have seen very meticulously drawn spreadsheets by financial planners on this and also seen individual investors finding it too complex and giving it up.  But it is my personal belief that it is not necessary to be very accurate nor be correct to the last level of detail.

All you need to ask yourself is this: “Has my equity or debt or gold swelled beyond a limit that I set myself initially? If so, let me put it back in order”.

Investing in falls 

Since we recommend that rebalancing can be an annual affair, does it mean that you should not deploy surplus money when markets fall? Not really. If you are aware that there is a market fall, and your portfolio itself is in the red, then you can always average with lumpsums, aside of the SIPs you may be running. 

But if you are bothered by the question of whether this is the right time to book profits or whether it is the right time to deploy some money, then rebalancing works well for you. 

Do also read our earlier article on Prime Varsity, on how to build a long-term portfolio

Disclaimer: we are not financial planners nor portfolio advisors and do not do review or rebalancing. This is an educative series to help you deal with your portfolio.

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10 thoughts on “How to book profits in your mutual fund portfolio”

  1. Please help answer this question – during rebalancing, if equity swelled, is it ok to not redeem the swelled portion but pause the upcoming equity SIPs and invest paused amount into debt or gold until the equity and debt ratio restores?? This way one can save the 10% LTCG. Of course the assumption is that the equity does no fall during this SIP pause period. Thank you.

    1. Not the ideal situation. You will affect averaging in equity if you do so. The assumption of equity not falling is not a strong one to make. Vidya

  2. Thank you, Vidya, for the very detailed article with several scenarios and specific numbers to make it a piece of more pragmatic information.

  3. Thanks for responding !

    It means prerequisite of rebalancing is to always buy equity and debt at same time per asset allocation when there is no rebalancing trigger. However, every rebalancing trigger, reset to original asset allocation..Right?

    Please don’t call them “views”. This is a fact and very close to reality and proven with market data. It contains downside, not compromise on return , keep unnecessary equity volatility at bay, encourages an investor to stay put as they sees rewards.

    1. I am afraid you are reading too much into ‘views’ 🙂 If it is your strategy and works for you, that’s great! I don’t think common retail investors understand when ‘small cap momentum falls’. The article was for those who find it difficult to know when the market peaks or bottoms out. We never said any other strategy is incorrect. Market data always works when applied post facto.The question is for less active investors to identify such points 🙂 thanks, Vidya

  4. Nice article on rebalancing !

    I have always found this very theoretical. Please help me understand 5 % deviation from original allocation can happen more because of you added more units rather than change in value. How one can differentiate it?

    Instead, I do this and it always working:

    I reduce equity allocation by 50% when momentum falls in small caps and increase debt/arbitrage/equity savings allocation correspondingly. Vice versa when small cap start performing. Note: Continue your SIP always.

    This way one is protecting downside and not compromising return in your portfolio which comes with rebalancing.

    One cannot make returns more than debt when momentum disappears in broader indices.

    I go for Debt returns when small cap equity headed south is better trade off than making equity volatility part of life and you end up getting lesser return than Debt.

    1. Thanks for sharing your views.

      The 5% deviation will not happen if you deploy fresh money across because we are talking of money deployment using an asset allocation – whether lumpsum or SIP. If you added when the market fell, you will anyway be rebalancing.

  5. Thank you for the timely article. While my domestic investments are doing well, my international funds are pulling down the allocation ratio due to the recent steep fall. Most international funds are not accepting fresh investments (I am little averse in investing more international funds due to govt restrictions that may not allow us to average) and domestic funds seem to be inflated. How do we rebalance in such cases?

    1. We have an passive international fund in Prime Funds that accepts inflows and quite a handful of ETFs do too. We don’t think that needs to stop you from stopping investments in case your run SIPs. If you exposure is already like 15-20% then you need not add or rebalance. Else, you can start SIP in the fund we have in Prime Funds. thanks, Vidya

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