SEC money fund rule changing $1 share faces less opposition

No more fixed values for riskiest funds

Some of the largest U.S. providers of money-market mutual funds have sought a compromise on new regulation, making adoption of tougher rules for the $2.6 trillion industry more likely if far from a sure bet.

A U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission proposal, scheduled to be voted on tomorrow, would require the riskiest funds to end the longstanding practice of pricing shares at a fixed value of $1 and instead force them to float. The vote will kick off a months-long burst of lobbying from investors, fund companies and other stakeholders before SEC commissioners consider a final version.

“This is going to be a long, drawn-out rulemaking initiative,” said Barry P. Barbash, a former director of investment management at the SEC. “The SEC staff and commission recognize you have to start somewhere.”

The proposal is the SEC’s second phase of response to vulnerabilities exposed by the 2008 financial crisis, when the $62.5 billion Reserve Primary Fund collapsed and money funds temporarily required a U.S. government guarantee.

U.S. regulators have long warned that money funds, which are commonly considered a safe, stable place to keep cash, aren’t insured deposits and could pose systemic risk to the financial system. The Financial Stability Oversight Council, an umbrella group of U.S. regulators including the Federal Reserve, said last year that money funds remain vulnerable to runs because shareholders are likely to flee if a fund’s share price drops below $1.

‘Fire Sales’

“Wholesale funding markets remain vulnerable to runs that could, in turn, trigger destabilizing fire sales,” Tobias Adrian , vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, warned the council members in a public meeting in April. “To address such concerns, the council recommends that the SEC consider regulatory action to improve the loss absorption capacity of money-market funds and mitigate run risk associated with those funds.”

Jeffrey N. Gordon, a professor at Columbia Law School and director of its Richman Center for Business, Law and Public Policy, expressed concern that the SEC proposal wouldn’t go far enough. He said the SEC should require funds to hold capital because the failure of single large issuer of debt could cause shares to fall below $1 and spark a run.

“I think it’s a missed opportunity,” Gordon said in a phone interview. “With the SEC, we are risking political actors trying to protect an industry.”

Long Deadlock

The SEC’s proposal, whose details have not been released, has divided the money-fund industry and faces additional resistance from investors concerned about potential tax liabilities. New money-fund regulation has also split the five- member commission, which deadlocked over the issue last year before the effort was revived. Several commission members have indicated support for the new proposal, which could be revised before a final vote.

The SEC’s proposal would impose the floating-share value only on “prime” funds that buy corporate debt and cater to institutional clients, according to two people familiar with the plan, who asked not to be identified because the proposal wasn’t public. Corporations that use the funds like cash accounts say the new regulations risk harming a convenient, highly liquid cash-management product.

‘Breaking the Buck’

A floating share value is intended to make funds more stable by signaling to investors that the value of the shares can fall below $1 -- known as “breaking the buck” -- without the fund collapsing.

“Breaking the buck should no longer be a significant event because money market funds would simply fluctuate in value in the same manner as other mutual funds,” FSOC wrote last year when it issued recommendations for further regulation of money funds.

The Investment Company Institute, the fund industry’s trade group, has argued a floating share value won’t stop a run on money funds. Even so, the ICI has adopted a wait-and-see approach, saying last week that it “expects this proposal will reflect the extensive research and discussion among commissioners and staff since last summer.”

The ICI has insisted funds should retain their fixed share value. Instead, the institute has proposed that fund boards be allowed to suspend withdrawals when weekly liquid assets fall to between 7.5 percent and 15 percent of total fund assets, or half the required level. After putting down such “liquidity gates,” funds would be able to charge a fee equal to 1 percent of redemption proceeds to investors who wanted to cash out shares, under the ICI proposal.

Fewer Funds

The SEC’s current floating-share proposal would affect fewer funds than a concept former Chairman Mary Schapiro championed in late 2011 and 2012, which envisioned changing the accounting standard for all money funds, including those that invest only in government securities or municipal bonds. The new proposal doesn’t include recommendations made by FSOC last year and opposed by money funds, including requiring them to hold capital against potential losses.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which opposed the 2011 and 2012 proposals, expects “liquidity gates” to be part of the current proposal, said Alice Joe, the executive director of the Chamber’s Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness.

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