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Will index funds behave themselves?

Index funds are supposed to mimic the returns of underlying indices. But either they trail the indices widely or try to outdo the indices through active management. SEBI seems to be taking a hard look at them

The mutual fund industry seems to be waking up to the virtues of index investing. IDFC Mutual Fund is launching one and IDBI Mutual Fund is launching another. But index funds have not covered themselves with glory so far. Not only do index funds do not accurately track the movements of their underlying benchmark indices, leading to what is called tracking error, but some funds make nonsense of index funds by trying to actively manage such funds, when all they are supposed to do is passively follow the index. This gives rise to “outperformers” among index funds—a contradiction in terms.

HDFC Index Fund managed a return of 21.13% over 10 years when the Nifty has gone up 17.10%. ICICI Prudential Index Fund managed a return of 21.48% over eight years with growth in the Nifty at 20.15% and UTI Nifty Fund managed returns of 13.38% over 10 years with growth in the Nifty at 12.92%.

This outperformance could be partially due to an element of active management. To enhance returns, ICICI Prudential Index Fund invested 15.48% of Rs96.6 crore in the futures market on 31 March 2010. UTI Nifty Fund too has put some money in futures and bank deposits. This shows how index funds are trying to manage money actively to outperform the benchmark and show greater returns. They are also known to be trying to time the market, something that explains underperfomance (fund managers are bad at timing) leading to tracking error in some cases.

Among the index funds, LIC MF Index Fund and Birla Sun Life Index Fund recorded the highest tracking errors

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