WASHINGTON — Plain-vanilla money market funds, part of the skeletal structure of American finance, may be a $2.7 trillion disaster hiding in plain sight.
When Congress in 2010 passed the most sweeping revamp of financial regulation since the Great Depression, it tried to address most of the problems that led to or were exposed by the near-collapse of the financial system. Money market funds slipped through the cracks.
Money market funds, a $2.7 trillion industry, remain largely unregulated. They remain vulnerable to runs from investors, who retain the false perception that there's no risk in them. The funds have been pitched as "can't fail" investments, yet as recently as last summer the largest money market funds had 45 percent of their assets tied up in European bank debt.
"Nothing in financial services is as dangerous as a guarantee without capital backing it," Sallie Krawcheck, the former president of wealth management for Bank of America, warned in a recent essay in The Wall Street Journal.
In an interview with McClatchy, Krawcheck said the Securities and Exchange Commission is right to be concerned and seek ways to bolster this crucial segment of the financial sector. Although these funds offer many pages of disclosure, she said, many investors still wrongly assume that the funds guarantee at least a break-even return. They're unaware that many fund managers aren't even banks with capital reserves, but simply asset managers.
"Individuals are very happy to spend quite a bit of time on risky investments, but for cash, individuals look for much more straightforward investments. Do you want to research websites on what the underlying investments (in money market funds) are?" asked Krawcheck.
The reason ordinary investors like money market funds is they are similar to checking accounts, where cash earns a small amount of interest but the money is not locked in and is accessible. Money market funds matter in the broader sense because they invest heavily in commercial paper, short-term debt issued by corporations to manage their cash-flow needs. These markets are lifeblood for corporate finance.
An October 2010 report by the Presidential Working Group on Financial Markets warned that a run on money markets could cause shocks throughout the U.S. financial system.
Big Wall Street players such as JP Morgan Chase say that enough has been done to bolster these funds and that additional fixes being weighed might reduce returns to investors and thus kill the industry, or least put it at a disadvantage. And money market fund managers are upfront now about risks.
"An investment in a money market fund is not insured or guaranteed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation or any other government agency. Although the fund seeks to preserve the value of your investment at $1.00 per share, it is possible to lose money by investing in the fund," investment giant Fidelity warns on its website.
That doesn't calm SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro. Asked during a recent breakfast with reporters what keeps her up at night, she put money markets funds atop her list.
"I do feel a sense of urgency about the structural weaknesses that do exist in money market funds," Schapiro said. "There is a structural weakness that makes them prone to runs, and I think we need further debate and discussion about some concrete ideas there."
Schapiro declined to discuss specifics, but SEC spokesman John Nester confirmed that rule changes are being prepared.
"At the chairman's direction, the staff is currently drafting proposals to address the susceptibility of money market funds to runs," he said in a statement to McClatchy.
In 2008, after the giant Wall Street bank Lehman Brothers failed, money markets fell into panic. The oldest money market fund, Reserve Primary Fund, had to write off its investment in commercial paper issued by Lehman and could not guarantee its investors 100 cents on the dollar. It was a phenomenon called breaking the buck, and had happened only twice before as isolated events.
The third time, however, skittish investors worried what other failures lurked, and in the financial market equivalent of a bank run, began tried to cash out en masse. Within a single week, a staggering $310 billion was withdrawn from money markets. Only when the Treasury Department stepped in to temporarily insure money market funds did panic ease.
Fast forward to today.
Money market funds in 2010 were forced to have more access to capital on short notice, and the credit quality of what they can invest in was tightened. The funds are no longer government insured and the revamp of financial regulation, called the Dodd-Frank Act, prohibited government from future market intervention like that which saved the system in 2008. Instead the new law provided a path to shut down failing financial institutions formerly regarded as "too big to fail."
However, money market funds are just as vulnerable to runs as they were then, but this time they'll be on their own. Few analysts see this as probable, but it remains possible.
For decades, money market funds have enjoyed an implicit guarantee that they cannot fail because they seek a stable market value_ called a net asset value_ of $1 per share. If that NAV falls below $1 a share, as it did in 2008, panic can ensue.
The SEC under Schapiro wants to make them less vulnerable to runs. Within the next two months, SEC staffers will recommend two alternatives for the full commission to consider. One involves moving to a variable "net asset value," which essentially would float the value of the assets and thus change the entire way money market funds have operated.
"I think that the industry will reject that pretty categorically. And so then the question is what else could be done. One approach would be essentially to create some more capital. They have very limited capital at this point. And there might be ways to maybe over time to build up the capital base," said Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, during March 1 Senate testimony. "So that's one possible approach, and then either complementing that or a separate approach would be something that involved not allowing the investors to draw out 100 percent immediately."
In fact, the other alternative SEC staffers are expected to propose involves higher capital requirements to buffer against runs by investors. This would allow fund managers to pump in money to maintain the 100 cents on the dollar standard when one of their investments sours_ as when Lehman failed.
As part of this second alternative, anyone withdrawing from a money market fund must leave at least 3 percent behind for perhaps 30 days. This serves as a disincentive to stampede out of the market as in 2008, and provides a disincentive to be the first out too. For the investor who moves slowly, it ensures a limited amount of loss. In the present system, the first investors out the door leave the slower-footed ones with the losses.
During Bernanke's testimony to the Senate Banking Committee, New York Democrat Charles Schumer, the hometown senator who bats for Wall Street, expressed doubts about the SEC effort.
"I've heard from some investors and from some funds that given the low margin that money market funds pay, that it would just end the business more or less. Or certainly I've heard from investors that they wouldn't put money in if they knew they had to keep 2 or 3 percent in there," Schumer said
The Fed chief did not appear persuaded.
"I think ... the Federal Reserve in general, and I personally, would have to agree that there are still some risks in the money market mutual funds. In particular, they still could be subject to runs," Bernanke told Schumer.
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