Tuesday 5 January 2010

Money fund or mattress?

When I first started in financial services, Albany Life (now Canada Life) had a reassuringly-named "Guaranteed Money Fund"; some time ago, this was quietly rebranded "Money Fund" (see page 19 of this brochure).

It's a sign of the times. Money market funds are supposed to be rock-solid - only one ever failed to return 100 cents in the dollar between 1971 and late 2008. But when Lehman Brothers collapsed in September 2008, it caused losses to a large and venerable US money market fund called The Reserve Primary Fund, which owned some Lehman debt. Initially, the loss was not great - Lehman debt represented only 1% of Reserve Primary's total assets - but there was a one-hour window in which investors could get their cash out at 100 cents on the dollar. Naturally, big investment companies, watching their computer screens, were in the best position to know what was going on and act accordingly. So they jumped out of Reserve Primary, in such volume that the Lehman debt was now worth 3% of the remaining (much shrunken) assets.

For the safety-conscious, there is hardly anything more disturbing than discovering that something you trust in completely is not entirely reliable. So a panic started, with investors exiting money funds generally, until the United States government said it would guarantee such funds. At least, it would guarantee those funds that agreed to pay an insurance premium to the government; and only investments made on or before 19th September 2008.

Now the rules on money funds are to be reviewed and understandably, it raises deep suspicions. In this recent post, Tyler Durden looks at a proposal to suspend your right to realize your money market investment, in a time of exceptional turbulence. Of course, that is exactly the time that you would wish to get out, and given the experience of September 2008 it would not be surprising to find that the institutional investors had already moved out before the suspension came into force.

It is important, because according to Durden's article about a third of all mutual funds' (the US equivalent of the UK's unit trusts) assets are in money market funds, and according to this Wikipedia article one-third of all money market funds are held by private investors. So the fear is that Joe Public would be left holding the baby if there should be a run on money market funds.

I think the fear is overdone. The measures discussed by Durden (see the paragraphs re "Recommendation 3") are clearly intended to make mutual fund investment into the money market safer, and less exciting in terms of gains; those funds that try to achieve better returns with higher risk are to be clearly identified and segregated, with tighter regulation plus provisions for emergency backing from central bankers. And removing promises re withdrawal on demand lessens the chances of a panic, by moderating expectations - it's like those commercial property funds that warn the investor that there could be a delay of up to 6 months if he/she wants to cash out.

Besides, even 97 cents in the dollar is a good return, when stocks have, at some points, lost as much as 50% of their value (e.g. between the end of 1999 and the summer of 2003).

A wider issue is the preferential treatment given to one class of investor over another. If The Reserve Primary Fund had cut its realizable value to 99 cents on the dollar immediately and for everybody, it might have prevented the panic, which was at least partly due to not wishing to be the last one left holding the worthless asset.

Nevertheless, there is always the question of what happens if you need money in a hurry. Argentine citizens were caught out in the "corralito" of December 2001, when banks froze accounts for initially a 90-day period (with the right to draw small amounts for day-to-day expenditure). The Argentine peso had previously been pegged to the US dollar, and after de-linking lost almost three-quarters of its exchange value by June the following year.

The real story, then, is the need for (a) emergency cash, in a form you can get at when you do really need it; and (b) for investors, a watchful eye on exchange rates, particularly in the light of economic problems because of out-of-control debt.

On the latter point, it's worth noting that the rot has already set in: the British pound has lost about 25% against the Euro in the last 3 years alone (and about 17% against the dollar, in the same period). A professional investor I read, called Warren Pollock, recently opined that the pound should eventually trade at around US $1.38, which means a further fall of 14%. Both currencies have lost against the Euro; but quite a few members of the European Monetary Union now have severe economic problems and it is not impossible that the dollar may enjoy a (relative) resurgence, not so much because of America's strength as because of others' weaknesses becoming better understood.

Currency speculation is for the high-rollers; but some ready money is a good thing to have, especially if inflation is not burning up its value. Maybe not under the mattress, though; as the Times reported in October 2008, sales of safes in the UK have soared in the crisis - as they did when Japan entered its long recession, years earlier.

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