regulating money market funds

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, the government has been considering the risks to financial stability posed, not only be banks but also by asset management firms.  As part of this effort, the SEC is about to set new regulations for money market funds this week.

what money market funds are

One of the most important economic (and stock market) trends of the past half-century has been the emergence of focused single-purpose entities to compete with large conglomerates.  In retail, specialty firms selling jewelry, toys, household goods or electronics have offered an alternative to department stores.

In finance, money market and junk bond mutual funds, have offered alternatives–to borrowers and savers alike–to commercial banks.

Money market funds have several important characteristics:

–they provide short-term, working capital-type loans to borrowers

–as mutual funds, they promise to accept daily subscriptions from savers and allow daily withdrawals in unlimited amounts

–they have typically offered higher yields than bank savings accounts–sometimes far higher yields

–they can offer the ability to write checks against deposits

–they promise, at least implicitly, to maintain net asset value at a stable $1 per share.  In other words, they promise that, like a bank deposit, you won’t lose any of the principal or interest you have in the fund

–because a money market fund is not a bank, its deposits are not government insured.  The “no loss” promise relies solely on the good will and financial strength of the investment company offering the product.

the risks

According to the Investment Company Institute, US money market funds currently hold $2.57 trillion in assets.  That’s a lot of money.

In times of stress, the warts in money market funds begin to show.

They come in two related varieties:

–as a practical matter, many funds are so large that they might not be able to meet redemptions if large numbers of shareholders lost faith in either the industry or a particular fund and headed for the exits,

–because money market funds compete with each other primarily on yield, inevitably someone (or more than one) will hold his nose and make a sketchy loan simply because the interest payments are high.  In a crisis, such loans may not be worth what a fund paid for them; in the worst case, the borrower will default.    In past crises, including 2008-09, there have been times when dud loans are big enough to make it questionable whether the real NAV of a given fund should still be $1.00 and not $.99.  These situations have typically been resolved by the management company that offers the fund buying the securities in question from its money market fund at face value.  But there’s no guarantee this will happen in the future.  And a single fund that “breaks the buck” by writing down assets in a crisis could easily spark an industry-wide panic.

new rules

This week the SEC is expected to issue new money market rules to meet these concerns.  They’ll include:

–many money market funds that don[‘t exclusively own Treasury securities will be required to have a floating NAV, and

–funds will have the ability to suspend redemptions in times of financial stress and/or impose withdrawal fees on those wishing to get their money back.

my take

I think new rules will have their greatest impact on the investment practices of money market funds.  They’re now generally regarded as a utility-like service that requires little investment skill or management oversight to run.  That will change.  No firm will want to be the first to impose withdrawal fees or suspend redemptions.  Certainly, no one will want to destroy their reputation for financial integrity by recording an NAV different from $1.00.  As a result, management oversight will increase and investing practices will become more conservative.

For all practical purposes, NAVs will remain stable at $1.00.

For savers, the FDIC insurance offered by bank deposits will become a bit more attractive.  Since, however, 2/3 of money market shares are held by institutions, I don’t think there will be a massive shift away from money market funds when the new rules take effect.

the FT, Vanguard and Morningstar: active vs. passive investing

Saturday’s edition of the Financial Times opens with a screaming front-page headline, ” $3.5 billion pulled out of Fidelity funds.”  

 …must have been a slow news day.  

The article goes on to explain that net inflows of individual investor cash into the stock market–both in the EU and the US–over the first half of 2014 have been going to index products, not to active managers. 

I can see several good reasons why this is so:

1.  Indexing is like cruise control.  You know you’re going to get more or less the return on the index against which a given index fund/ETF is benchmarked.  So you only have two variables to consider:  how closely the fund/ETF is able to track the benchmark, and what its expense ratio is.  There’s no fretting about an active manager’s style and strategy, or whether he/she is still running the portfolio whose historical record you’re examining

2. Fidelity doesn’t necessarily want mutual fund customers.  I’ve had a Fidelity brokerage account for decades.  Fidelity has never approached me, ever, to buy a mutual fund product of any type.  I presume it’s because the company makes more money from having me trade individual stocks.

3.  Picking active managers takes some effort.  It requires having some understanding of the stock market and an ability to deduce strategy from the lists of holdings that managers report each quarter to the SEC.  

True, there is Morningstar, a service which has been providing its famous “star” rankings of mutual funds for about a quarter century.  Although Morningstar, disingenuously, warns buyers of its star information not to use it as the reason for picking a given mutual fund, people do pay for the rankings.  So they must have a reason.  Investment management companies take out full-page adds to tout their high star-ness.  Inflows seek high-star funds and shun low-star ones.

Over at least the past several years, however, Vanguard points out that following Morningstar rankings hasn’t been a good idea.  The index fund giant is publicizing a study it did of Morningstar fund rankings from 2011 – 2013.  Over the three years, Vanguard says there was a strong correlation between Morningstar star ranking and fund performance, but it was the opposite of what the rankings suggested.  One-star funds performed the best vs. their peers, two-star funds the next best   …and so on, in order, with five-star funds performing the worst.  Whoops!

Personally, I’ve never been a fan of Morningstar’s use of short-term volatility as a measure of the riskiness of a portfolio.  My guess is that the relative stability of a fund’s NAV ends up being the most important factor in getting a high star rating.  So that rating has little to do with future return potential.  But I have no real idea how Morningstar could have gone as badly astray as Vanguard says.

Anyway, to sum up, if there’s any news in the FT article, it’s the (understandable) extent to which individual investors are embracing psssive investing, not the fact that they’re doing so.

 

 

 

“New World Order”: Foreign Affairs

The July/August 2104 issue of Foreign Affairs contains an interesting conceptual economics article titled “New World Order.”  It’s written by three professors–Erik Brynjolfsson (MIT) , Andrew McAfee (MIT) and Michael Spence (NYU)–and outlines what the authors believe are the major long-term trends influencing global employment and economic growth.  I’m not sure I agree 100%, but I think it’s a reasonable roadmap to start with.

Here’s what the article says:

the past

Globalization has allowed companies to exploit wide wage differentials between countries by moving production from high-cost labor markets close to consumers to low labor cost areas in the developing world.  Former manufacturing workers in high-cost areas enter the service sector to seek employment, depressing wages there.

This period is now ending, as relative wage differentials have narrowed.

now

Relative labor costs are at the point where manufacturing plant location is determined by other factors.  These include:  transportation cost, turnaround time for new orders and required finished goods inventory.  This implies that manufacturing can be located closer to the end uses it serves.  However, globally higher labor costs also imply that new factories will be much more highly mechanized than before.  Robots replace humans.

As a result, wage growth will remain unusually subdued.

the future 

Although returns to capital have avoided the erosion that has befallen labor over the past generation, this situation won’t last.  Long-lived physical capital is being replaced by software (note:  the majority of investment spending done by US companies is already on software).

Software doesn’t have either the total cost or the permanence of capital invested in physical things.  Software can be moved, it can be duplicated at virtually zero extra expense.  To the extent that software replaces physical capital as a competitive differentiator, it makes the latter obsolete.  It, in turn, can be made obsolete by the innovative activity of a small number of clever coders.

Therefore, the authors conclude, returns on invested capital (especially physical capital) are already beginning to enter secular decline.

Where will future high returns be found?

…in the innovative activity of talented, well-educated entrepreneurs.

education

This brings us to a major problem the US faces.  It’s the relative slippage of the domestic education system vs. the rest of the world, and an increased emphasis on rote learning (No Child Left Behind?).

The trio dodge this politically charged issue–they do observe that there’s a direction relationship between the quality of a community’s schools and the affluence of its citizens–by asserting that online learning will come to the rescue.  A child stuck in a weak school system will, they think, be able to in a sense “home-school” himself to acquire the skills he needs to succeed in the future they envision.

my take

What I find most interesting is the presumed speed at which the authors seem to think transition will occur.

–Is it possible that we’ve reached the point where there’s no available low-cost labor left in the world?  If so, this is a dood news/bad news story for low-skill workers.  On the one hand, downward wage pressure will stop.  On the other, robotization is going to take place at warp speed, making it harder to find a job.

Relocation of factories will also have implications for transportation companies, warehousing and even the amount of raw materials tied up in company inventories.

–Does software begin to undermine hardware so quickly?  Certainly this the case with online retailing and strip malls.  But how much wider is this model applicable?

–If the key to future growth is young entrepreneurs, then the sooner we as investors reject the Baby Boom and embrace Millennials the better.  This, I think, is the safest way to benefit in the stock market if the New World Order thesis proves correct.

 

 

US 401ks may be facing negative cash flows in two years

That’s the conclusion of a study by consultant Cerulli Associates reported earlier this month in the Financial Times.    

In 2016, Cerulli estimates inflows from plan participants will be $364 billion; withdrawals by retiring workers will amount to $366 billion.  And the negative cash flow gap widens from there.  This doesn’t mean that aggregate 401k assets will decline precipitously, or even decline at all for a while.  Presumably appreciation of assets in the system, now at about $3.5 trillion, will more than offset net withdrawals for a long while. Still, this marks another milestone in the waning of the wealth and influence of the Baby Boom.

Most often, 401k withdrawals find themselves rolled over into IRAs, which now amount in total to about $5.4 trillion, according tothe FT.  Despite the inflow of refugee 401k money, however, the IRA market isn’t a picture of health, either.  It’s possible that the overall defined contribution market (401ks + IRAs) will turn cash flow negative by the end of this decade.

Although some retirees may be permitted to remain in the company 401k plan, most opt for the greater flexibility, arguably more favorable tax treatment and wider universe of choice afforded by IRAs.  When they do so, they apparently go from reasonable asset allocations of 45% -60% stocks, with the rest in fixed income, into a conservative shell, with 65% – 80% in bonds. It’s not clear whether this has always been the case, or whether current behavior is a PTS reaction to the financial collapse of 2008-09.  It may also be that IRA holders need that large an allocation to bonds just to generate a reasonable amount of income.

The net result of all of this is that pension saving is gradually turning from being a mild net positive for stocks into a mild net negative.

My take from this is that it’s one more reason for turning one’s attention away from the Baby Boom and toward Millennials in trying to figure out retail investors’ influence on the stock market.

exit fees for junk bond funds?

contingency planning

The SEC is doing contingency planning for the time when the Fed will declare the current five-year+ economic emergency over and begin to raise interest rates back to normal.  What “normal” is in today’s world is itself a subject of debate .  The official Fed view is that overnight money should carry an annual interest charge of 4% vs. the current zero.  Even if the right number is actually 3%, that’s still a huge jump (more on this topic in a couple of days).

According to the Financial Times, the SEC is worried about what will happen to junk bond funds/ETFs when rates begin to rise.

the problem

The issue is this:

–investors wary of the stock market but searching for yield have put $1 trillion into corporate bond funds since the financial crisis.  Such funds now have about $10 trillion in assets under management.

–the charm of mutual funds is that the holder is entitled to cash in any/all of his shares at any time before the market close on a given day, and cash out at that day’s net asset value.

–junk bonds are relatively sensitive to changes in interest rates and go down when rates go up, and

–many junk bonds trade “by appointment only,” meaning they’re very illiquid and basically don’t trade.

So, the question arises, what happens if/when holders see their net asset value eroding and decide to all withdraw at once?  Arguably buyers will disappear when they see an avalanche of selling coming toward them.  The initial selling itself will tend to put downward pressure on bond prices.  A falling NAV can conceivably generate even more, panicky, selling.

If a big no-load junk bond fund is hit with redemptions equal to, say, 25% of its assets over a period of several months, will it be able to sell enough of its portfolio to meet shareholders demands for their cash back?  Maybe   …maybe not.

operates like a bank…

Put a different way, a junk bond fund is a lot like a bank.  It takes in money from depositors and lends to corporations.  In the pre=-junk bond days, a bank would lend at, say, 10%, pay depositors 2% and keep the rest for itself.  That opened the door to junk bond funds, which reverse the revenue split, keeping a little for themselves and paying the lion’s share of the interest income to shareholders.

…but no FDIC or Fed

If there’s a run on a bank, the government steps in and stands behind deposits.  If there’s a run on a mutual fund, there’s only the fund management company.

a real problem?

How likely is any of this to happen?  I have no idea.  Neither does the SEC   …but it’s apparently thinking it doesn’t want to find out.

Allowing/requiring junk bonds to charge exit fees would do two things:  it would decrease the flow of new money into the funds from the instant the fees were announced–and maybe trigger redemptions in advance of the imposition date; and it would make holders think twice before taking their money out.

footnote-ish stuff

Historically, there’s a sharp difference between the behavior of holder of load and no-load funds.  In experience, load funds that I’ve run have experienced redemptions of maybe 5% of assets in bad times.  Similar no-load funds might lose a third of their assets.

Mutual funds typically have tools they can use to deal with high redemptions.  They can usually buy derivatives that will hedge their portfolio exposure; they have credit lines they can use to get cash for redemptions immediately; in dire circumstances, they can suspend redemptions or meet redemptions in kind (meaning you get a junk bond instead of your money ( ugh!)).

Junk bond ETFs are a tiny portion of the whole.  They’re a special type of mutual fund.   Holders of ETF shares don’t deal directly with the management company.  They buy and sell through designated market makers, who have no obligation to transact at or near NAV.  Therefore, they can staunch selling simply by swinging the market down far enough.  At the bottom of the stock market in March 2009, for example, I can recall specialized stock ETFs trading at over 10% below NAV!

This issue is part of a larger government debate about whether large investment management companies are systematically important to the financial system and, as such, should be more highly regulated.

 

 

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