Signs Of The Apocalypse: Even Money Market Funds Are Losing Money

In the history of money market funds, says the NYT, only one had ever “broken the buck” or actually lost money… before yesterday. On Tuesday, the managers of a multi-billion dollar money market fund announced that their customers might lose money in the fund– a type of investment that is considered as safe as a savings account.

From the NYT:

The announcement was made by the Primary Fund, which had almost $65 billion in assets at the end of May. It is part of the Reserve Fund, a group whose founder helped invent the money market fund more than 30 years ago.

The fund said that because the value of some investments had fallen, customers now have only 97 cents for each dollar they had invested.

This is only the second time in history that a money market fund has “broken the buck” — that is, reported a share’s value was less than a dollar.

How could this happen? The NYT says that in this year alone banks have poured billions of dollars into shoring up money market funds that were caught holding questionable mortgage backed securities — leading millions of investors to pull their money out of other investments and place it into money market funds.

The trouble came when The Primary Fund realized that its stake in now-bankrupt Lehman Brothers was essentially worthless, causing the fund’s value to drop to 97 cents per share. For now, the fund will rely its right to delay redemption for seven days:

But, as prospectuses and regulators make clear, money funds are not legally required to keep their share prices at or above a dollar, or to redeem investors’ shares immediately. Like all regulated mutual funds, their share prices are determined solely by dividing total portfolio assets by the number of shares outstanding, and they have seven days to meet redemption demands.

Those facts would probably surprise most money fund investors, who have come to think of money funds as being “just like cash, just like a checking account,” a fund industry lawyer, Jay Baris, said.

The Investment Company Institute tried to reassure investors in a statement Tuesday. Here it is:

“Today, Reserve Management Corporation announced that one of its money market mutual funds is unable to maintain a $1.00 net asset value (NAV), an event triggered by unprecedented market conditions that have affected a wide range of financial firms. This type of event–known as “breaking the buck”–is extremely rare.

“Money market mutual funds have been a successful financial product for millions of investors. Although money market funds are not guaranteed, investors have benefited from the security, liquidity, and diversification that these funds provide under stringent and effective regulation. Today, money market funds hold $3.5 trillion in assets for a wide range of individual and institutional investors.

“ICI is working closely with its members and with regulators, including the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Reserve, to maintain open communications about market conditions and their impact on funds.

“The fundamental structure of money market funds remains sound. These funds are subject to strict regulation governing credit quality, liquidity, diversification, and transparency. Rule 2a-7, administered by the SEC, strictly limits the types of securities in which money market funds can invest. Securities held by money market funds must be judged highly credit-worthy by both objective and subjective tests, and Rule 2a-7 imposes strict requirements for diversification of assets. The provisions of Rule 2a-7 have operated to help money market funds maintain a stable NAV of $1.00 per share. While not obligated to do so, fund sponsors have voluntarily lent support to their money market funds with credit lines or cash infusions in a number of recent instances.

“In the only previous instance of a money market fund breaking the buck, Community Bancshares, a small institutional money market fund, paid investors 96 percent of their principal.”

Money Market Fund Says Customers Could Lose Money [NYT]
ICI Statement on Money Market Mutual Funds [ICI]
(Photo: atbartlett )

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