Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Money-Market Fund Yields May Fall to Less Than Zero, Crane Says

(Bloomberg) Investors in money-market mutual funds that focus on U.S. Treasuries may lose money for the first time if the Federal Reserve cuts interest rates next week and yields become too small to cover expenses.

Record-low yields on government debt have already led money-market funds to waive fees to keep returns positive. If the Federal Open Markets Committee, as expected, cuts its target rate, some Treasury funds may allow returns to turn negative, said Peter Crane, president of Crane Data LLC, a money-fund research firm in Westborough, Massachusetts.

“No one has ever paid above and beyond their interest income to be in a fund,” Crane said. “But if we see another cut, we’ll likely see negative yields.”

The U.S. Treasury sold $27 billion of three-month bills on Dec. 8 at a discount rate of 0.005 percent, the lowest since it started auctioning the securities in 1929. The U.S. also sold $30 billion of four-week bills yesterday at zero percent for the first time since it began selling that debt in 2001. Money- market managers could impose a system of incremental debits or charge monthly account fees, Crane said.

Institutional money-market funds that invest only in Treasuries and related repurchase agreements had an average seven-day yield of 0.12 percent, after fees, as of Dec. 8, according to iMoneyNet, a research firm also based in Westborough. The average institutional Treasury money fund charges a management fee of 0.29 percent, Crane said.

Money-market funds are considered the safest and most liquid investment after bank deposits and Treasuries.

Their shares sell and are redeemed at $1 each, and the income generated by their investments is credited daily to a shareholder’s account. At the end of every month, the credits are paid either in cash or by giving the investor more shares.

Daily Charges

According to Crane, if a fund’s expenses exceed its income, accounts could accrue daily charges instead of credits. The fund would then settle the charges at the end of the month by taking shares away.

Such charges aren’t the same as breaking the buck, which happens when investment losses cause a money fund’s net asset value to fall below $1 a share. In September, the Reserve Primary Fund fell to 97 cents a share because of losses on debt issued by the bankrupt Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. triggering a run on U.S. money-market funds. It was the second money fund ever to break the buck.

Instead of charges, money funds could introduce a monthly account fee that is taken out in shares, Crane said. Either way, investors would lose money, he said.

No New Cash

Of the 500 largest U.S. money-market funds, 41 have daily annualized yields at or less than 0.05 percent, including four funds with zero yield. The 41 funds are probably waiving all or part of their regular fees to keep from taking money out of principal, Crane said.

Falling yields on Treasuries led some Treasury-only funds, including those run by JPMorgan Chase & Co. in New York and Boston’s Evergreen Investments, to turn away new investors. Barring new customers protects returns for investors already in the funds because managers don’t have to buy as many new Treasuries with yields lower than current holdings.

The Federal Open Markets Committee is scheduled to meet Dec. 16 in Washington. The panel is expected to halve its target rate to 0.5 percent, according to the average estimate of 72 economists surveyed by Bloomberg.

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