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 “dark pool” investigation

Someone with a Dungeons and Dragons background must have named them “dark pools.”  But they’re neither mysterious nor scary.  Dark pools are just off-exchange automated trading networks for stocks.

They exist for two reasons:

–the old school method of having a trader in a money management firm call up a broker and place a buy or sell order by phone is expensive.  And money managers have a legal obligation to obtain the lowest cost execution of their orders on behalf of clients.  So they have a positive obligation to seek out cheaper ways of doing business–which automated networks are.

–brokerage house traders won’t keep a money manager’s order secret unless the manager is exceptionally diligent.  This is a real hassle, and very time-consuming for the  money manager’s trading room.  But if you don’t pay extraordinary attention, your secret trading plans–which, after all, are your stock in trade–will be all over Wall Street in a nanosecond.

Automated trading networks have one–no, make that two–defects:

–they can be relatively illiquid, so that very large positions may not be able to be moved quickly, and

–many of the biggest of them are run by investment banks/brokerage houses.

This second characteristic is the reason for the current SEC investigation.

In a recent post, I wrote that Fidelity was exploring the possibility of forming its own automated trading network with other money managers, cutting out brokers altogether.  Its reason, I thought, was that computer=based high frequency traders were able to deduce Fidelity’s trading plans by analyzing dark pool data–and that Fidelity wanted to create a venue where they’d be banned.

It appears I may have been too high-tech in my approach.  The SEC investigation appears to focus on two possibilities, both of which are decidedly old-school brokerage behavior and both of which would violate the guarantees the automated network operators give to clients:

–the first is that the operators may have taken undisclosed fees from high-speed traders to allow their buys and sells to have priority over other order–essentially letting them front-run or scalp other participants

–the second is that operators may have taken the supposedly anonymous trading activity of high-profile participants and sold its details to others.  I say “sold” but in my experience, the compensation for such information would normally not be in cash but either in increased trading volume or higher per-trade fees.

Personally, I don’t think dark pools themselves are the issue.  I view them as part of the solution to a problem with how traditional brokerage/investment banks are run.  And the fact that the old system is breaking down makes these firms even less willing than normal to give clients an even shake.

It will be interesting to see how the SEC investigation progresses.

 

 

Madoff and JPMorgan Chase

another JP Morgan legal settlement

Yesterday JP Morgan and the federal government announced a deal.  The bank has agreed to pay fines of $2.6 billion and to reform its operating practices, in return for not being prosecuted for offenses relating to the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme.

Although the press reports are a bit confusing, the offenses seem to fall into two areas:

–Madoff routinely made transfers in and out of his accounts in excess of $10,000 a day.  Chase did not report these to the government as required by anti- money laundering statutes.  At least some of these transfers were rapid-fire movements from bank to bank, designed to allow Madoff to illegally collect interest on the deposits from more than one institution (“check kiting”).

–Parts of JP Morgan refused to invest the bank’s money with Madoff on the grounds that he was running a Ponzi scheme.  Other parts of JP Morgan happily continued to service Madoff, to buy his products, and to help sell them to others. Also, In the days just before Madoff’s arrest, JP Morgan withdrew most of its own money from Madoff, apparently because of fears of fraud.  The bank notified the UK government of this, but, oddly, not the US.

my take

To me, the plea deal is more evidence of a sea change in the attitude of regulators toward the financial industry since Mary Jo White became head of the SEC.  Long overdue.

In my experience, in every company there’s a tension between politically powerful senior managers who are identified with, and benefit from, the revenues generated by someone like Madoff and the relatively junior researchers who understand the facts better and are more aware of what the law requires.  The former can put up immense resistance to fixing problems.  Their allies can simply refuse to act on, or even to read, the case for a different course of action.

I’ve seen some of the Madoff sales materials.  They assert that phenomenally high returns are to be had with virtually no risk.  No explanation of how this is possible, just a simple appeal to greed.

Current media coverage is highly favorable to government investigators.  What seems to be forgotten is that Harry Markopolos, a financial analyst whistleblower with very detailed evidence of the Madoff Ponzi scheme, repeatedly showed up at SEC offices from 2000 onward to present his case.  He was ignored every time.  (Markopolos was asked by his boss to create a clone of Madoff.  He soon realized that there were periods where no assets delivered the returns Madoff claimed.)

The most elementary checks of the phony documentation Madoff prepared would have revealed the fraud.  But in their periodic inspections, the SEC appears to have checked virtually nothing.  Madoff himself commented on how easy the SEC was to fool.

accredited investors and the JOBS Act

“accredited” investors

When you open a brokerage account in the US, you fill out a form that requests information about your income, risk tolerances and investment knowledge.  From what I can see, it gets only superficial scrutiny.  But saying that you have some money and understand the risks of investing in various types of publicly traded securities does two things.  It gets you a seat at the table and it protects your broker from customer lawsuits claiming they lost money because they didn’t understand what they were getting into.  In a sense, passing this vetting process makes you accredited–but that’s not what the term “accredited” usually means.

Instead, it refers to the same kind of vetting process, but for private placements–purchases of securities not registered with the SEC and not sold through the traditional (expensive and time-consuming) IPO process carried out by the big brokerage houses.

For individuals, “accredited” means you have $1 million in assets, not including your principal residence, or you earn at least $200,000 a year.  (There’s a different criterion for institutional investors who want to trade in non-registered–usually foreign–securities.  To be accredited in that sense means having $100 million in investable funds under management.)

The bottom line:  “accredited” means either you’re in the top 1% or pretty close.

not good enough for the 21st century

In the pre-internet, pre-JOBS Act, pre-Mary Jo White world, that was ok.  Private placements were restricted to a very small number of individuals, whose main characteristic is that they can afford losses they might incur in buying risky securities.  The wealth criterion also effectively preserved the near-monopoly on public issuance of securities of the big brokerage houses on Wall Street.

That’s all changing.

the new order

There are already special rules to allow crowdfunding sales of securities.

For the JOBS Act (which allows smaller, early stage companies to raise funds with only limited disclosure) to be truly effective as a  capital raising vehicle for business startups, the pool of investors has got to be larger than just the usual “accredited” suspects.

Interestingly, at the same time as the newly active SEC is saying it sees some merit in things like bitcoin, the agency is also preparing to overhaul the definition of what an accredited investor is.

The new emphasis appears to be on accrediting people who have knowledge, training or experience that gives them insight into the risks and rewards of investing in a startup rather than just being able to take their lumps if an investment goes south.

I don’t know whether this is a good thing or not.

But Washington passed the JOBS Act last year to make it much easier for startups to raise money.  And, contrary to Mary Shapiro’s foot dragging, Mary Jo White is certainly going to set rules of procedure to allow the Act to function.  And that means opening this class of investments to more potential buyers.

do think, however, that this will turn out to be another instance of a new internet-based business model undermining an older higher-cost pre-internet one.  It will be interesting to see how–and if traditional brokerage/investment banking firms will adapt.  I suspect that this change will have far greater ripple effects than anyone now expects–maybe even momentous ones.

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the SEC, Citigroup and moral hazard

This is an update and elaboration on my November 11th post about Judge Jed S. Rakoff, the SEC and Citigroup.

moral hazard

Moral hazard in finance is the situation where the existence of an agreement to share risks causes one of the parties to act in an extra-risky manner, to the detriment of the other.   In a sense, the willingness of the party who ultimately gets injured to enter into the agreement causes, or at least allows, the bad behavior by the other to occur.  He inadvertently sets up a situation where the bad behavior is rewarded, not punished.

examples

–Systematically important banks have been able to take very big proprietary trading risks, knowing that they are “too big to fail” and will ultimately be bailed out by the government if their risky bets don’t pan out.  The rewards of such risk-taking go as bonuses to the bankers; the cost of bets gone bad is borne by the general public.

–One of the reasons Germany is so hesitant to bail out Greece is that doing so rewards the latter country’s reckless borrowing behavior over the past decadeand shifts the costs of cleaning up the resulting economic mess onto the citizens of the rest of the EU.

the Rakoff case and moral hazard

Judge Rakoff has just rejected a proposed settlement of a case involving Citigroup and the SEC, on what appear to me to be similar moral hazard grounds.

The settlement involves Citi’s creation and sale of $1 billion in securities ultimately tied to a pool of sub-prime mortgages selected by the bank.  Citi neglected to tell the buyers of the securities that it wasn’t simply an agent.  It was making a $500 million bet that the securities would decline in value sharply–which they subsequently did.  Investors who bought the securities from Citi lost $700 million.

I don’t know precisely how much money Citi made on this transaction.  But I think I can make a good guess.  To make up rough numbers, collecting a 2% fee for creating and selling the issue would bring in $20 million or so.  A 70% gain on its negative bet on the issue would yield $350 million.  If so, the much more compelling reason for creating the issue would be to design it to fail and then short it.  In any event, let’s say Citi cleared $370 million before paying its employees who thought up and executed the total deal.

The proposed settlement?

–fines and penalties totaling $285 million

–Citi doesn’t admit or deny guilt, which means

——the settlement doesn’t create any evidence to support a lawsuit by the investors who lost money, and

——the settlement doesn’t trigger the sanctions against future illegal conduct that are contained in prior settlements with the SEC.

–only low-level Citi employees are reprimanded.

Assume the SEC allegations are all true.

If so, what a deal for Citi!  The SEC “punishment” is that the bank keeps $85 million in profits and gets a slap on the wrist.  Who wouldn’t agree?

What would make this moral hazard is that this is is the worst case outcome for Citi.

And, if you figure that the SEC looks at one suspicious deal out of ten, the situation is even less favorable for investors.  The decision whether to create another issue like this one is a layup.

Would it be so easy if Citi stood a chance of losing money?  …or of triggering clauses in prior settlements prohibiting illegal behavior?

What about the legal team that decided what he minimum disclosure in sales materials should be?  Would they have insisted that Citi must reveal its proprietary trading position in those materials if fines were larger, or if they could be held professionally liable for the information’s exclusion?

What if the Citi executives that okayed everything risked being barred from the securities business for a period of time–would they have acted in the way they did?

grandstanding?

I don’t think critics are correct that Judge Rakoff is trying to raise his public profile by insisting that the SEC either obtain a better settlement or go to trial with its case.  Others are saying that the SEC takes settlements like this because it doesn’t have the legal skill to get anything better.  But these are ad hominem arguments  –like saying the parties are wearing ill-fitting clothes, they’re distracting, but irrelevant.

But it is true that this case comes at a time of growing public anger that bank executives are showing few ill effects from the devastating economic damage they helped cause.

It will be interesting to see what new settlement the SEC and Citi come up with.

Stay tuned.

Citigroup, Jed Rakoff, MF Global and the SEC

There’s an odd asymmetry to the way the SEC works.

For example, it put Martha Stewart in jail but ignored Bernie Madoff.   It pursued Michael Milken vigorously after the junk bond market collapsed.   But it has, so far, left the heads of the major commercial and investment banks untouched, despite the fact that the toxic derivative securities they created were much more widespread and–as we continue to see–have damaged the world financial system much more severely than anything Milken did.

Raj Rajaratnam’s insider trading recently drew an 11-year prison sentence and a $93 million fine.

But the other side of the SEC has come to light again recently in the court of gadfly judge Jed Rakoff.  Judge Rakoff is being asked to approve a settlement of a case in which buyers of a Citigroup mortgage product lost $700 million.

The deal the SEC is offering?

–pay back $160 million, plus $30 million in interest and a $95 million fine;

–Citi doesn’t admit it did anything wrong;

–only low-level Citi employees are sanctioned.

–oh  …and the SEC wants to include an admonition to Citi not to do stuff like this again.  But, as Judge Rakoff points out, Citi appears to have violated such orders issued in prior settlements at least twice in the past decade and the SEC has done nothing.

You’d take a deal like that all day long.

A cynic might say that this behavior is related to the fact the current head of the SEC used to be in charge of the brokerage industry trade association.  On the other hand, I believe much of the toxic derivative activity was deliberately organized by the banks out of London because that put them out of the reach of US prosecutors.  So there’s not much the SEC can do.

…which brings me to MF Global.

There’s certainly a danger to generalizing from a small number of instances.  But, to me, what connects Martha Stewart, Michael Milken and Raj Rajaratnam is tha: t the issues are easy to understand, the names are high-profile, none were deeply plugged into the financial industry establishment and, although wealthy, none had the near-infinite resources of the large investment and commercial banks.

One of the issues that the Occupy Wall Street movement gives voice to is that after nearly destroying the world economy and forcing a high-cost financial rescue that all of us will be paying for for many years, no high-level financial commercial bank or brokerage executive has been prosecuted for anything.

What this adds up to, I think, is that the SEC will be scrutinizing the role Jon Corzine played in the demise of MF Global very carefully.  He’s a former head of Goldman Sachs but no longer an industry insider;  he’s an ex-senator and ex-governor; he’s wealthy–but not Bill Gates.   And, the question of whether the firm illegally took money out of customer accounts and used it to stave off margin calls is pretty clear-cut.  It may also be hard to say you didn’t notice an extra $600 million plopping into a portfolio you manage–especially so if you really needed it.

It will be interesting to see what happens–both whether the SEC finds a reason to prosecute and whether that will satisfy OWS.  My guess on the second count is that it won’t.

insider trading and ETF stripping

insider trading

Over the past couple of months there has been a constant drip, drip, drip of news conferences by the SEC on the topic of its ongoing investigation of insider trading.   Most have been to announce arrests of hedge fund-related professionals accused of this white-collar crime.  The “timed release” nature of the news flow has several objectives that I can see:

–it unsettles as yet uncaught lawbreakers, perhaps causing them to make foolish mistakes that will make their apprehension easier,

–it discourages anyone tempted to trade on confidential company information,

–it burnishes the reputation of the SEC as guardian of the securities markets, and, of course,

–it keeps unflattering stories, such as the one that the agency’s own financial statements have chronically failed to meet minimum government standards, off the front page.

ETF stripping

One the of the latest SEC announcements involves something new to me–ETF stripping. What is it?

The securities exchanges and their regulators maintain continual computer surveillance of public market trading, both of securities and derivatives.  They look for unusual patterns in volume or price movement that may indicate insider trading.   For example, three days before a merger announcement, trading in near-term call options of the target firm spikes to 5x normal volume; or the day before a surprisingly bad earnings report, puts for the stock of the company in question do the same thing.  Such deviations from the norm ring alarm bells and prompt the regulators to investigate who was trading and why.

According to the SEC, one way traders on inside information have been able to outwit this surveillance has been by buying shares in a sector ETF that contains their target stock, and shorting all the other names the ETF contains.  They end up owning only the name they want to.  But they don’t show up on the regulators’ screens as owning the target stock at all.  Instead, they’re seen as holding an index security (the ETF) and a bunch of short positions.

my thoughts

I have several thoughts:

–Most traditional investors can’t short stocks.  For those who can, there’s a very good chance that clients would notice and question the synthetic construction of a long position through ETF stripping.  So the SEC is talking about hedge funds here.

–Hedge funds would presumably piece the trading out to several brokers so that no one counterparty sees the entire picture.

–ETF stripping would be particularly hard to find if it were done by the trading desks of brokers, particularly those who act as intermediaries for ETFs and are constantly buying and selling both ETFs and their component securities.  Trading costs would be the lowest for such brokers, as well.

–There’s no reason to go to the trouble of ETF stripping other than to try to evade regulatory scrutiny.  So the practice seems to me to be a two-edged sword.  On the one hand, the chances of being detected are lessened.  On the other hand, the ETF stripper is like the burglar caught in the bank after hours with safe-cracking tools.  If caught, he can’t claim he’s there by accident.

–I can’t imagine the SEC figured this out by itself.  Instead, I presume the agency learned about ETF stripping through an arrested inside trader who offered information in exchange for a lesser sentence.

It will be interesting as this story develops to see how widespread the practice has been.