Friday, December 7, 2012

What's so bad about prices that can change or "float"?

In a surprising and somewhat hopeful development, SEC member Luis Aguilar has told the WSJ (gated) that he has now changed his position on allowing money market mutual funds to have prices different than $1 per share. Technically, the net asset value (NAV) of money market funds are currently pegged to a fixed unit value. Investors put a dollar into a fund, are paid interest on that dollar (recently as low as .01% but not too long ago more like 2-3%), and then can redeem their investment at any time to be returned exactly one dollar. If the value of the fund's investments ever falls below $1 per dollar invested, the fund has "broken the buck" and goes to time out . . . and the financial world comes to an end, or so Federated Investors among others would have us believe.

Federated has been a vocal incumbent fighting these reforms. The firm started one of the first money market funds back in 1974. It has a lot at stake here. The dollar peg restriction acts as a check on entrants into the industry. 

I applaud the idea of a floating NAV for money market funds. As a money manager for hundreds of investors of very wide and diverse liquidity needs, I understand what is at issue with a floating NAV. It probably makes my job a little harder at least initially. But it will make the market deeper and more informative. 

One major benefit of the change could be that the moral hazard that comes from the "guaranteed" dollar value of money market funds is reduced. Investors, especially institutional investors like myself, will have to be more diligent in selecting money market funds. But with that will come more choices and richer choices as competition increases.

Another benefit would be the choice investors would have between funds that aim for a continuation of the dollar peg, but without the legal obligation, and those that allow a wider range of value. Couple this with another important potential reform--allowing funds to gate or block investors from making redemptions on demand. Again, this means more choice for investors allowing them to trade off between liquidity and performance.

Before we get too carried away with this sudden move by the SEC to rationalvania, let's wait to see what actually emerges. The SEC probably hasn't freed itself of the public choice capture that has long plagued it. The exact quote by Mr. Aguilar was, "I'm not fundamentally opposed to including a properly structured floating net asset value as part of a proposal." There is wiggle room there. Still, this seems to be a promising development. Someone somewhere is probably complaining, "This country is going to the dogs. You know, it used to be when you bought a politician, that S.O.B. stayed bought."

Update: Just in case anyone is out there trying to make 2 + 2 = 7, I am not implying there has been any literal purchasing of regulators in Mr. Anguilar's case or any other.