ETF and mutual fund problems last week

Both types of fund, exchange-traded and mutual, had issues throughout last week in calculating their per share net asset values .

For fund management firms, the lack of end-of-day mutual fund pricing was a real pain.  For us as investors, however, the ETF consequences were far worse.

mutual funds

The best feature of mutual funds, in my view, is the guarantee that under all but the most extreme circumstances owners can buy in or cash out every trading day after the close at net asset value.   Last week, because of the computer failure at BNY Mellon, the funds that it prices didn’t have NAV information.  So they had to estimate NAV to do daily transactions.

Once they have precise NAV information, they can adjust the number of shares that buyers from last week actually have.  For people who have cashed out, though, it’s not so easy.  If a fund paid too little in a redemption, it must forward the extra to the seller once it finds out.  If, however, it pays out too much in redemptions, most sellers won’t voluntarily return the excess.  The fund may not even ask, either because it doesn’t want embarrassing publicity or because it knows the cost of suing the seller to get the money back will doubtless exceed the potential return.  The fund will presumably try to get BNY Mellon to make good any losses. Failing that, the fund management company has to pony up.


ETFs are basically mutual funds that let designated brokerage firms handle the buying and selling for them.  This makes ETF expenses noticeably lower than those of a traditional mutual fund.  It also allows the ETF to trade all day, rather than once after the close.  These are the main ETF pluses.  The offset is that potential buyers and sellers have no assurance that brokers will be willing to transact at any given time and in the amounts they wish to.  We also have no guarantee that transactions will be at, or even near, NAV.  For those of us who are long-term holders or who place limit orders, neither shortcoming should be a big worry.

Then there was last week.

Last week, the ETFs normally priced by BNY Mellon had no current NAVs, only guesstimates.  This had two related consequences for investors:

–Brokers became reluctant to trade, since they couldn’t be 100% sure any bid-asked spread they made would be profitable on both sides (for most ETFs, they had to have had a reasonable idea, I think).

–And they widened the market they made from, say, + / – 0.5% around NAV to a lot more.  On Monday, for example, I decided to throw a long-time clunker in my portfolio overboard and replace it with an ETF.  I soon found that I could only buy at NAV +3%.  And even a small transaction at that price took half an hour to complete.

A lot worse than that happened, however.

The Wall Street Journal offers this account of ETFs during trading early Monday of last week:

“…the $2.5 billion Vanguard Consumer Staples Index ETF …plunged 32% within the opening minutes of trading. The Vanguard Consumer Staples ETF was halted six times over the course of 37 minutes early in the day, according to trading records.

The declines…were notable in that they exceeded the declines in the prices of their underlying holdings. In the case of the Vanguard Consumer Staples ETF, the value of the underlying holdings in the fund fell only 9%, according to FactSet. (my emphasis)”

Yes, Monday was a bad day.  But it wasn’t a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, of the type that occurs occasionally in a bear market.  This characteristic of ETFs–that market makers swing the bid price waaay down in times of stress–is one that all of us as investors should be aware of.  As far as I can see, it’s also something the ETF industry has deliberately de-emphasized.  I don’t think it’s a reason not to own ETFs in the first place.  But there will surely be times in the future like last Monday where the price for cashing out is 20%+ of the value of your holding.  So I think most people shouldn’t be holding only ETFs.  Trying to sell them in a market downdraft should only be a last resort.





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.




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.



current equity market money flows

There’s been a lot of press recently about investors suddenly waking up after four years of strong market gains and deciding to take their money out of “safe” fixed income investments and put it into stocks.

What’s implied in many of these articles is that this flow is what’s putting the recent zip into the S&P 500.  What’s also implied, and sometimes stated, is that this is the “dumb money” whose arrival on stage is a signal that we’re entering the closing act of the current bull market.

Both implications might have some truth to them.  But neither is anything like the full story.   Most people are a lot smarter than that.  Money flows are a lot more complex.

This is what I see:

1. Any money going into stock market mutual funds or ETFs is not coming out of bonds.  Bond funds have had large inflows every month since January 2009, except for tiny outflows in December 2010 and August 2011.

Money coming into bond mutual funds accelerated in 2012, to around $25 billion a month, according to the Investment Company Institute, the mutual fund trade organization.

2.  Bond inflows have been matched by steady though smaller, outflows from stock mutual funds.  The lost stock mutual fund money may be feeding part of the bond buying binge.  But there are also two important trends within the equity world.

–There’s a big multi-year shift away from actively managed equity mutual funds toward index ETFs.  Two reasons:  better performance, and lower costs.  ETF flows are clearly much healthier than equity mutual funds’.

–Virtually all the net equity mutual fund outflows have been coming from US-only funds.  Global, international and emerging market mutual funds have been at least treading water.  Similar ETFs are seeing large inflows.  Again, this has been happening for years.

3.  So far in 2013 over $60 billion in net new money has come into equity mutual funds, breaking an almost two-year stretch of outflows.  Two-thirds of that has gone, as usual, into global etc. funds.

Much more interesting, to my mind, but almost completely unnoticed, is the HUGE outflow of over $112 billion from equity funds that occurred last year, from August through December.

Why this rush to the door?  My guess is that this is the final shoe dropping from the stock market collapse of the Great Recession. In my experience, some investors will panic and sell at the bottom.  Others will nurse their wounds and refuse to sell until they get back to breakeven.  Then nothing on heaven or earth can persuade them not to take their money and run.  I’ve turned around two woefully underperforming global funds for two different organizations.  In both cases, this sort of almost inexplicable outflow was the last step in the healing process.

If that’s what happened during the second half of 2012, it’s a significant bullish sign for stocks.

Morgan Keegan, fund directors and fair value pricing: and SEC action to keep tabs on

Morgan Keegan, now a part of Raymond James, was a regional brokerage firm with a strong fixed income emphasis.  It was severely wounded by large losses in fixed income mutual funds during the housing meltdown, and by subsequent SEC legal actions.  The regulator accused the firm of misrepresenting the risk character of some mutual fund offerings to potential clients and of systematically mispricing funds over extended periods of time.  As part of a settlement, the portfolio manager who ran a number of these funds agreed to a fine of $500,000 and a lifetime ban from the securities industry.

“So, what’s new?” you may ask.

What’s unusual about this case is that late last year the SEC sued the boards of directors of some of these funds for what it says was their failure to ensure that the funds were priced correctly.   Although directors are, legally speaking, the highest-ranking officials in any mutual fund and are therefore directly responsible for the conduct of the fund’s officers and staff, the SEC has until now only held the investment professionals and support staffs of wayward funds accountable for their actions–and left the directors alone.

my thoughts

1.  The returns cited by the Wall Street Journal  for one of these funds in reporting on this case are really ugly.  It lost 30% of its value in 2008 vs. a return of +6.8% by the fund’s performance benchmark.  In 2008, the fund was down by 73.2% vs. a benchmark return of +4.0%.

2.  Fair value pricing–meaning having third-party experts estimate a price for a security if there are no trades for it on a given day–is an important issue.  Typically a rogue manager or a rogue firm will want to assign securities a price that’s too high, to disguise a fund’s underperformance.

The problem:  shareholders who sense the problem early and cash in their shares get more than their share of the fund assets, leaving loyal/trusting shareholders with a large hole in their fund NAV once the fraud is uncovered.

3.  Fair value pricing isn’t a new issue.  It was a big problem during the collapse of the junk bond market in the late 1980s.  It was also the centerpiece of Eliot Spitzer’s expose of shady practices by international funds in the mid-1990s.  Apparently the SEC again called mutual fund boards’ attention to possible fair value pricing issues with funds holding mortgage-backed bonds in 2007.

4.  The SEC must think that its warnings were being ignored by mutual fund boards and that it had to make an example of someone.

5.  If so, the agency appears to have chosen its target well.  Morgan Keegan isn’t a large, deep-pocketed, politically powerful investment banker like Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley.  The Morgan Keegan name no longer exists.  The firm has recently been sold to Raymond James, whose executives presumably have no personal ties with the accused directors and no interest in prolonged or expensive litigation which would only keep any past Morgan Keegan misdeeds in the public eye.

Yes, the directors doubtless have liability insurance against possible lawsuit.  But my guess is that the insurer in question may assert that coverage doesn’t extend to instances like this.

This case has the potential to change the way mutual fund directors are selected, what qualifications they should have, how they carry out their duties and how much they’re paid.  It’s worth keeping an eye on.

why September’s such a bad month for stocks

welcome to September 2011

This year, September has opened to a mini-swoon in world stock markets caused by a poor jobs report in the US, worries about the government suing banks over past sub-prime mortgage sins, and general panic about Greece (the EU political “plan,” if you’d call it that, appears to be to let the situation deteriorate to the point that voters will be grateful for even a painful rescue and not kick out the politicians who caused the problem in the first place).

the annual September equity decline

Who knows how long this downdraft will last–as I’m writing this, global equities appear to be rallying a bit, but this isn’t the normal seasonal decline in stocks.

It’s really not just September when stocks go down, either.  There’s a several-week period of selling that typically starts each year in mid-September and ends in mid-October.  But there’s usually a rally toward the end of October, so the early-month decline is less obvious.

This decline has nothing to do with the macroeconomy or stock valuation.  It’s all about mutual fund taxes.

here’s why

Mutual funds in the US (ETFs, too) are a special type of corporation.  Their activities are limited to investing, and they’re required to distribute to shareholders virtually all of their net realized profits soon after the end of each tax year.  In return for these restrictions, they’re exempt from corporate tax on their gains.  Only shareholders pay.

The tax year for virtually all mutual funds, which determines how much they must distribute, ends on October 31st.

adjusting the distribution

Shareholders like to get a distribution, which they take to be a sign that things are going well.  This makes no sense to me–better to “ride your winners” and let gains compound without paying tax–but that’s what the customers want.

On the other hand, people don’t like to pay taxes, so they don’t want a gigantic distribution (over 5% of the fund’s assets), either.

So mutual fund managers start to adjust the size of their potential distributions sometime in September.

This involves a lot of selling. 

If the required distribution is too big, a manager will scour his portfolio for stocks where he has a loss that he can sell.  If there’s no distribution, or if the payout will be too small, he hunts around for positions where he can justify taking a partial profit. 

It’s not about actually sending money to shareholders,

as I’ve heard “experts” on finance talk shows say.  An overwhelming majority of mutual fund shares, say, 95%+, sign up for automatic reinvestment of distributions.  So if the yearend gains add up to 5% of the fund assets, the amount of money that actually leaves the fund is .05 x .05 = .0025, or .25% of the assets.  That’s far less than the frictional cash a manager needs to have on hand to ensure smooth settlement of tradesSo the transfer of funds is not a big deal.

this tax planning is healthy, in my view

It gives a reason for a manager to step back and take a hard look at all the fund’s positions It also gives him a psychological excuse to dump out stocks where he’s hoping against hope that they’ll work out (trust me, even the top managers have one or two of them).

one caveat

If a fund has unused tax losses left over from prior years–and many still have them as scars from panic redemptions by shareholders in late 2008-early 2009–it can’t make a distribution until those losses are gone.  Either the fund makes offsetting gains (which won’t be subject to tax–a good thing) or the losses expire.

In either case, there’s no need to take part in the yearly September-October tax selling ritual.

this year?

My guess is that tax selling season will be relatively mildThe S&P 500 is showing about a 1% loss since last Halloween.   So unless a manager made very large adjustments to his portfolio positioning a few months ago, when stocks were considerably higher, the gains generated in day-to-day portfolio activity shouldn’t be large.  Also, at least some funds will continue to be in a net loss position, so they won’t be able to make distributions no matter what.



are South Korea and Taiwan emerging markets?: implications for index mutual funds/ETFs

Korea and Taiwan aren’t emerging economies…

Korea has been a member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the association of developed nations, since 1996.  Taiwan would presumably be a member, too, if it were not for China’s insistence that Taiwan is not a separate country, but a prodigal province of the mainland.

On a GDP per capita basis, Korea and Taiwan rank #33 and #37 in the world, respectively, just above the Czech Republic, which is also an OECD member.  On a Purchasing Power Parity basis, the two rank #25 and #20 by their per capita GDP–around the same level as the UK, France and Japan.

Looking at their place in world trade, neither is an exporter of raw materials or agricultural products in the way Australia or New Zealand (both classified by index compiler MSCI as developed countries) are.  Instead, both sell advanced technology and machinery products, like computers and smartphones.

…but their stock markets aren’t well-developed.

My experience is that company financial statements aren’t reliable in either country.  Neither governments nor company managements in either country care to have foreigners as shareholders, and treat them poorly.  There’s also a significant amount of intrusion into market workings by politically powerful entities in both.  The fact of this interference isn’t the issue; that happens everywhere.  It’s the extent–and maybe my lack of familiarity with the local rules–that bothers me.  In this regard, both Taiwan and Korea seem to me like Japan, only on steroids.

Every one of these factors is characteristic of emerging markets, not developed ones.

is MSCI about to reclassify both stock markets as developed?

There’s nothing new about what I’ve written above.  It’s been the situation for at least a decade (in stock market terms, it was worse before).

What is new, however, is that both the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times have published recent feature articles suggesting that the MSCI will reclassify both Korea and Taiwan as developed markets later this month.

that might be an issue for holders of emerging markets index funds/ETFs

I’m most familiar with these entities in the US, but I think what I’m saying holds true for EU funds/ETFs as well:

Mutual funds/ETFs are both instances of a special type of corporation that is exempt from corporate tax.  It gains this exemption by, among other things, distributing all income (net of expenses) and realized capital gains to shareholders–who must pay tax on them.  Typically, distributions are made once annually, shortly after the tax year for the fund/ETF ends.

Together, Taiwan and Korea make up about a quarter of the MSCI Emerging Markets stock index (the largest other index constituents are China and Brazil).  If both countries are reclassified, index funds/ETFs will be required by their charters to sell all their Taiwanese and Korean holdings and reinvest the proceeds back into the revised Emerging Markets index.  That will presumably generate a large capital gain to be distributed to shareholders.

four quirks about a possible distribution

1.  It’s a fact of life about funds/ETFs that the holder who pays tax on a fund’s capital gain is the person who receives the distribution–not necessarily the person who enjoyed the rise in price of the stock that’s been sold.  If you buy a fund/ETF share today and receive a massive capital gains distribution tomorrow, you’re on the hook for any tax due, not the holder of the share while the capital gain was being amassed.

2.  Any distributions are net of any accumulated realized losses.  In the case of the Vanguard emerging markets index fund, which I hold, it had unrealized gains of $7.5 billion on April 30, 2011, the date of the most recent semi-annual report, but accumulated losses of $2.4 billion.

3.  Distributions are usually made at the same time every year.  For US funds, which typically have an October tax year, distributions come most often in late November or early December.  But a distribution can be made earlier–and often is, if the fund manager fears shareholders intend to sell their holdings to avoid receiving a large taxable distribution.  In other words, a Taiwan/Korea-related distribution could come as early as in July.

4.  Virtually everyone who buys a fund/ETF signs up for automatic reinvestment of distributions, so that the distribution itself results in almost no outflows. Only anticipatory sales, made to avoid a distribution, do that.

fund groups aren’t talking

I called up Vanguard the other day to ask about this issue.  My own back-of-the-envelope reckoning is that a distribution from the Vanguard emerging markets fund, if any, will be small (25% of the accumulated unrealized gains of $7.5 billion would be $1.9 billion, less than the $2.4 billion in accumulated losses).  And I own my fund shares in an IRA, so a distribution doesn’t affect me, in any event.  But I was curious.

My Vanguard representative was aware of the issue, but said everything depended on what MSCI does later this month.  I asked for the April 30th tax situation for the fund, but she wasn’t able to find it.  I looked it up online after I hung up.

relevant tax data are easy to find

Look for the latest annual/semiannual/quarterly report for your fund/ETF.   It will have a list of holdings and their market value (but not their individual cost basis).  At the end of the list, there’ll be aggregate cost and market value data.  In a section following right after that, the fund will show its accumulated realized losses.

2008 is a key year

The emerging markets index lost over half its value that year.  Although there’s no way of being certain with any individual fund, twenty some years of managing this type of money tell me that all the redemptions that created Vanguard’s accumulated losses came at the bottom or shortly after–probably in large part from people who bought shares in 2007.

Any fund/ETF that’s large now but was just getting started in 2008 probably has little in the way of accumulated losses to offset realized capital gains.  Entities like this are where the risk of a large taxable distribution are highest, in my opinion.  We’ll know more on June 21st, when MSCI does its next revision of the index.