Money Market Funds Melted in Pandemic Panic. Now They’re Under Scrutiny.

In March 2020, the Federal Reserve had to step in to save the mutual funds, which seem safe until there’s a crisis. Regulation may be coming.,


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The Federal Reserve swooped in to save money market mutual funds for the second time in 12 years in March 2020, exposing regulatory shortfalls that persisted even after the 2008 financial crisis. Now, the savings vehicles could be headed for a more serious overhaul.

The Securities and Exchange Commission in February requested comment on a government report that singled out money market funds as a financial vulnerability — an important first step toward revamping the investment vehicles, which households and corporations alike use to eke out higher returns on their cashlike savings.

Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen has repeatedly suggested that the funds need to be fixed, and authorities in the United States and around the world have agreed that they were an important part of what went wrong when markets melted down a year ago.

The reason: The funds, which contain a wide variety of holdings like short-term corporate debt and municipal debt, are deeply interlinked with the broader financial system. Consumers expect to get their cash back rapidly in times of trouble. In March last year, the funds helped push the financial system closer to a collapse as they dumped their holdings in an effort to return cash to nervous investors.

“Last March, we saw evidence of how these vulnerabilities” in financial players that aren’t traditional banks “can take the existing stress in the financial system and amplify it,” Ms. Yellen said last month at her first Financial Stability Oversight Council meeting as Treasury secretary. “It is encouraging that regulators are considering substantive reform options for money market mutual funds, and I support the S.E.C.’s efforts to strengthen short-term funding markets.”

But there are questions about whether the political will to overhaul the fragile investments will be up to the complicated task. Regulators were aware that efforts to fix vulnerabilities in money funds had fallen short after the 2008 financial crisis, but industry lobbying prevented more aggressive action. And this time, the push will not be riding on a wave of popular anger toward Wall Street. Much of the public may be unaware that the financial system tiptoed on the brink of disaster in 2020, because swift Fed actions averted protracted pain.

Division lines are already forming, based on comments provided to the S.E.C. The industry used its submissions to dispute the depth of problems and warn against hasty action. At least one firm argued that the money market funds in question didn’t actually experience runs in March 2020. Those in favor of changes argued that something must be done to prevent an inevitable and costly repeat.

“Short-term financing markets have been driven by a widespread perception that money funds are safe, making it almost inevitable the federal government provides rescue facilities when trouble hits,” said Paul Tucker, chair of the Systemic Risk Council, a group focused on global financial stability, in a statement accompanying the council’s comment letter this month. “Something has to change.”

Ian Katz, an analyst at Capital Alpha, predicted that an S.E.C. rule proposal might be out by the end of the year but said, “There’s a real chance that this gets bogged down in debate.”

While the potential scope for a regulatory overhaul is uncertain, there is bipartisan agreement that something needs to change. As the coronavirus pandemic began to cause panic, investors in money market funds that hold private-sector debt started trying to pull their cash out, even as funds that hold short-term government debt saw historic inflows of money.

That March, $125 billion was taken out of U.S. prime money market funds — which invest in short-term company debt, called commercial paper, among other things — or 11 percent of their assets under management, according to the Financial Stability Board, which is led by the Fed’s vice chair for supervision, Randal K. Quarles.

One type of fund in particular drove the retreat. Redemptions from publicly offered prime funds aimed at institutional investors (think hedge funds, insurance companies and pension funds) were huge, totaling 30 percent of managed assets.

The reason seems to have its roots, paradoxically, in rules that were imposed after the 2008 financial crisis with the aim of preventing investors from withdrawing money from a struggling fund en masse. Regulators let funds impose restrictions, known as gates, which can temporarily prohibit redemptions once a fund’s easy-to-sell assets fall below a certain threshold.

Investors, possibly hoping to get their money out before the gates clamped down, rushed to redeem shares.

The fallout was immense, according to several regulatory body reviews. As money funds tried to free up cash to return to investors, they stopped lending the money that companies needed to keep up with payroll and pay their utility bills. According to a working group report completed under former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, money funds cut their commercial paper holdings by enough to account for 74 percent of the $48 billion decline in paper outstanding between March 10 and March 24, 2020.

As the funds pulled back from various markets, short-term borrowing costs jumped across the board, both in America and abroad.

“The disruptions reverberated globally, given that non-U.S. firms and banks rely heavily on these markets, contributing to a global shortage of U.S. dollar liquidity,” according to an assessment by the Bank for International Settlements.

The Fed jumped in to fix things before they turned disastrous.

It rolled out huge infusions of short-term funding for financial institutions, set up a program to buy up commercial paper and re-established a program to backstop money market funds. It tried out new backstops for municipal debt, and set up programs to funnel dollars to foreign central banks. Conditions calmed.

ImageA primary concern is that investors will expect the Federal Reserve to save money market funds in the future, as it has in the past.
A primary concern is that investors will expect the Federal Reserve to save money market funds in the future, as it has in the past.Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

But Ms. Yellen is among the many officials to voice dismay over money market funds’ role in the risky financial drama.

“That was top of F.S.O.C.’s to-do list when it was formed in 2010,” Ms. Yellen said on a panel in June, referring to the Financial Stability Oversight Council, a cross-agency body that was set up to try to fill in regulatory cracks. But, she noted, “it was incredibly difficult” for the council to persuade the Securities and Exchange Commission “to address systemic risks in these funds.”

Ms. Yellen, who is chair of the council as Treasury secretary, said the problem was that it did not have activity regulation powers of its own. She noted that many economists thought the gates would cause problems — just as they seem to have done.

Of particular concern is whether investors and fund sponsors may become convinced that, since the government has saved floundering money market funds twice, it will do so again in the future.

The Trump-era working group suggested a variety of fixes. Some would revise when gates and fees kicked in, while another would create a private-sector backstop. That would essentially admit that the funds might encounter problems, but try to ensure that government money wasn’t at stake.

If history is any guide, pushing through changes is not likely to be an easy task.

Back in 2012, the effort included a President’s Working Group report, a comment process, a round table and S.E.C. staff proposals. But those plans were scrapped after three of five S.E.C. commissioners signaled that they would not support them.

“The issue is too important to investors, to our economy and to taxpayers to put our head in the sand and wish it away,” Mary Schapiro, then the chair of the S.E.C., said in August 2012, after her fellow commissioners made their opposition known.

In 2014, rules that instituted fees, gates and floating values for institutional funds invested in corporate paper were approved in a narrow vote under a new S.E.C. head, Mary Jo White.

Kara M. Stein, a commissioner who took issue with the final version, argued in 2014 that sophisticated investors would be able to sense trouble brewing and move to withdraw their money before the delays were imposed — exactly what seems to have happened in March 2020.

“Those reforms were known to be insufficient,” Ben S. Bernanke, a former Fed chair, said at an event on Jan. 3.

The question now is whether better changes are possible, or whether the industry will fight back again. While asking a question at a hearing this year, Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican from Pennsylvania and chair of the Banking Committee, volunteered a statement minimizing the funds’ role.

“I would point out that money market funds have been remarkably stable and successful,” Mr. Toomey said.

Alan Rappeport contributed reporting.

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