Friday, September 26, 2008

How Safe Are Money Market Funds?

As you may have heard, the Federal Reserve has said that it will guarantee investors have in money market funds (MM) for the next 12 months. This was prompted by one of the largest and oldest money market funds ‘breaking the buck’ = i.e. the net asset value of the fund dropped from $1.00 per share to $0.97 per share last week. In the past, MMs have diligently maintained the net asset value at $1.00, even when they had to add their own funds. Due to this limited drop, many investors became concerned about the money they had invested in MMs and started withdrawing funds. To avoid a run on these account the Feds stepped in less than 24 hours later and issued the guarantee.

The question is: is this guarantee enough?

I am personally concerned that the ‘bail-out’ package now before Congress is being politicized by both sides of the aisle. I think much of the problem is caused by media-generated hysteria magnified by politicians on both sides during this election cycle. There is nonetheless a serious problem which demands action by our leaders. Government regulation is tricky: if too little, it doesn’t address the problems adequately; if too much they trigger the ‘Law of Unintended Consequences. ‘There are two dangers: 1) that delaying the bill beyond the end of the week will precipitate a liquidity freeze and market impact; and 2) by adding too many provisions to the bill will lessen the ability for the Fed to address the liquidity issue. Personally, I have more confidence in Paulsen, Bernanke, & Co. than in Congress.

Based on research Jason and I have done, I believe that Schwab is very sound, since they have avoided investing in sub-prime mortgages and related products. We have reviewed the holdings of the regular MMs offered by Schwab. They are well diversified and not exposed to the default risks other brokerages have taken on to increase yield. They will be participating in this new guarantee of MM funds offered by the Feds, as it will be funded by the brokerages who participate.

There are some unanswered questions, however.

How much of an investor’s deposits will be covered? We assume the minimum coverage will be $100,000, similar to FDIC coverage, but it may be more like $500,000 similar to current SIPC coverage (not gov’t. guaranteed).

Will this cover deposit by foreigners? Generally the Fed’s don’t guarantee funds of foreigners. If that is true, it may be expected that foreigners will withdraw funds from the MM funds which could trigger a run.

How much will be covered? Right now, there is $50 billion set aside to cover these guarantees. The problems is that the total amounts in MM funds is $3.5 trillion, so less than 2% is covered. It is likely that the bailout bill would give the Fed more flexibility, which is one reason for the urgency expressed by Bush and his economic advisors.

What are the alternatives for clients? Schwab offers a Treasury Money Market, which invests only in Treasuries. The current yield on this MM is 0.56% as compared to 2.04% on the regular money market.

The answers to these questions will be more clear once the bailout bill is worked out. For now our recommendation generally is that Schwab’s regular MM fund is suitable for our clients. However we are aware that a number of clients are very concerned about absolute safety, so the Treasury MM fund is recommended if you are losing sleep over the safety of your savings. Also, if you have over $100,000 in MM funds, we recommend you consider moving the amount you have in excess of $100,000 to the Treasury MM.

If you would like us to make a change in the money market in your account, please send an email to your Cambridge Team, and we will handle it for you. Also, let us know if you have any further questions regarding this.

Bert Whitehead, MBA, JD

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