The SEC gets closer to regulating money-market funds

By Felix Salmon
February 7, 2012

Banks need to be regulated. Depositors can’t be expected to do due diligence on their financials, so you need deposit insurance. And in turn, the government — which provides the deposit insurance — needs to make sure that the banks have certain minimum levels of capital. Otherwise, the insurance fund will go bust in no time.

All of this is wholly uncontroversial — until you get to the subject of money-market funds. At heart, as they exist today, MMFs are banks. They borrow money which is repayable on demand, and they lend it out for fixed terms, taking a certain amount of credit risk while doing so. If their borrowers fail to repay the money, or if their depositors all demand their money back at once, then they’ll be left needing to be bailed out.

Paul Volcker, in September, gave a speech laying out the problem with MMFs very clearly:

Started decades ago essentially as regulatory arbitrage, money market funds today have trillions of dollars heavily invested in short-term commercial paper, bank deposits, and notably recently, European banks.

Free of capital constraints, official reserve requirements, and deposit insurance charges, these MMMFs are truly hidden in the shadows of banking markets. The result is to divert what amounts to demand deposits from the regulated banking system. While generally conservatively managed, the funds are demonstrably vulnerable in troubled times to disturbing runs, highlighted in the wake of the Lehman bankruptcy after one large fund had to suspend payments. The sudden impact on the availability of business credit in the midst of the broader financial crisis compelled the Treasury and Federal Reserve to provide hundreds of billions of dollars by resorting to highly unorthodox emergency funds to maintain the functioning of markets.

Recently, in an effort to maintain some earnings, many of those funds invested heavily in European banks. Now, without the backstop official liquidity, they are actively withdrawing those funds adding to the strains on European banking stability.

The time has clearly come to harness money market funds in a manner that recognizes both their structural importance in diverting funds from regulated banks and their destabilizing potential. If indeed they wish to continue to provide on so large a scale a service that mimics commercial bank demand deposits, then strong capital requirements, official insurance protection, and stronger official surveillance of investment practices is called for. Simpler and more appropriately, they should be treated as an ordinary mutual funds, with redemption value reflecting day by day market price fluctuations.

Wonderfully, it seems that the SEC has been listening. The WSJ article is a bit hard to follow, but the SEC seems to have a three-pronged approach to regulating these beasts.

Firstly, they’ll be forced to raise capital. Secondly, depositors won’t be able to withdraw all of their money at once, just 95% of it. The last 5%, they’ll have to wait 30 days. And thirdly, the net asset value should be allowed to float, rather than being fixed at $1.

What are the chances of all of this happening? Zero. Reading between the lines, it seems that the SEC is making a big ask, and will probably be willing to compromise: even Volcker painted reform as a choice between more capital and a floating NAV, rather than a both-and approach.

But just forcing MMFs to raise capital will be a huge and important step forwards. Not that it’s going to be easy:

J. Christopher Donahue, president and chief executive of Pittsburgh-based Federated Investors Inc., which manages $255.9 billion of money-fund assets, said he plans to sue the SEC if the new regulation interferes with his firm’s ability to do business.

“We’re going to do everything in our power to attack it,” Mr. Donahue said of the possible regulations.

This is kinda hilarious, given the official Federated argument against Volcker:

With 30 million investors and $2.6 trillion in assets, MMFs are hardly unseen, hidden or surreptitious. Not only are they subject to significant control, examination and oversight by the Securities and Exchange Commission, with detailed prospectus requirements for the issuance of their shares, demanding reporting requirements, regular surveillance, and substantial requirements as to liquidity, asset quality and maturities, but they must publicly and frequently disclose the contents of their portfolios, on their websites and in regulatory filings – down to the individual security level.

In other words, the reason that MMFs need no further regulation is that they’re already regulated by the SEC. On the other hand, if the SEC itself wants to step up its regulation of MMFs, then they’ll sue it.

The reality is that MMFs are a monster source of systemic risk in the US, and the SEC is absolutely right to want to get some kind of a grip on them. They need to make a choice: are they mutual funds, where investors risk taking losses? Or are they banks, which need to be regulated by the government? Up until now, they’ve managed to have their cake and eat it — but those times must come to an end. Here’s hoping Mary Schapiro sticks to her guns on this one, in the face of what is sure to be extremely stark opposition.

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