• Wealth Management

Time to Take a Fresh Look at Money Market Funds

After years of paying almost no interest at all, money funds now pay something – and are likely to pay more as the year progresses.

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With the stock market suddenly much more volatile and bond prices falling, investors looking for a less risky place to stash their cash may want to consider money market mutual funds. Investors can now earn some yield while they keep a portion of their portfolio readily available to reinvest should an opportunity arise (see “The Case for Cash”). 

While bank certificates of deposit and bank money market accounts are viable alternatives in terms of yields, money market mutual funds can be part of an investment portfolio, which makes them much more accessible for investors seeking liquidity. CDs are meant for investors willing to set aside some cash for a set period of time while bank money market accounts are typically more tied bill-paying than investing.

Many investors forgot all about money market mutual funds about 10 years ago when interest rates plunged following the financial crisis. The yields on these extremely short-term vehicles just about disappeared as the Federal Reserve’s program of bond-buying, known as Quantitative Easing, and other aggressive monetary policy measures drove down rates.

Between 2009 and 2015, the average annual money fund return was just 0.05%, or just five basis points, according to Morningstar. In 2014, the average yield was one basis point. That’s a $10 annual return on a $100,000 account. 

A Long Drought for Money Market Funds

Source: Morningstar as of Dec. 29, 2017.

Higher Yields Ahead?

However, in the past year, as the Federal Reserve raised interest rates three times, money market yields have begun to inch up. In 2017 the average taxable money fund return was 0.48%. Some fund companies now offer money market funds with yields over 1%. With the Federal Reserve pointing toward three more interest rate hikes this year, money market fund yields are likely to go higher.

Money market funds have changed in other ways in recent years. The U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission passed new money fund rules that went into effect in late 2016. Now, only funds that are marketed to individuals or that invest solely in government securities can continue to maintain a constant net asset value (NAV) of $1, a long-standing practice of the industry, regardless of market conditions. Most funds sold to institutions need to report a lower NAV if the securities held in the portfolio dip temporarily. In response, institutional money fund portfolio managers have shortened average maturities to decrease the likelihood of even a small paper loss.

Although money market funds can invest in securities with up to a one-year maximum maturity, the average maturity is now far shorter. Taxable money market funds now have about a 30-day average maturity. For tax-exempt funds, it’s less than 20 days. The short durations of these funds reduce risk, but also explain why average yields aren’t higher.

Untested Money Fund Rules

The impact of floating NAVs has not been tested in a meaningful way since the new rules went into effect 15 months ago. Money market funds have not been subject to any major interest rate or credit shocks. Another rule change that hasn’t been tested: money market funds have the ability to implement redemption fees and exit gates (so investors couldn’t all sell at once) in certain situations, as long as they give shareholders prior notice via prospectus disclosures.

Importantly, what hasn’t changed is that money market funds, whether retail or institutional, are investments—not bank accounts. As such they are not insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. or any other government agency.

There are three money market fund types:

  • Prime funds invest in a wide range of short-term securities from bank certificates of deposit to highly rated commercial paper and asset-backed paper. They are generally taxable and offer the highest yields, but also have higher credit risk.
  • Tax-exempt funds, including federal tax-exempt and state-specific tax-exempt funds, invest in short-term municipal securities. As the name implies, federal tax exempt funds are free of federal taxes but may be subject to state and local taxes. State tax-exempt funds, which invest primarily in municipal issues of a single state, are double or even triple tax-free. Double tax-free applies the fund is free from federal and state taxes, and triple tax-free applies if it is exempt from federal, state and local taxes. For investors in a high tax bracket, a tax-exempt money fund may have significantly higher after-tax returns than a taxable equivalent.
  • Government funds, including Treasury-only funds, generally have lower yields than prime funds because they hold securities that have the backing of the federal government and, therefore, are deemed to have the lowest credit risk. Government funds are also the least changed by the new rules. Whether for institutional or individual investors, these funds are unlikely to lose money and this year, may pay more than they have in years.

Research provided by Olga Pujara, fixed income analyst with Morgan Stanley Wealth Management. 

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