The Wall Street Journal, August 24, 2012, on page A10
Economist George Stigler described the process of "regulatory capture," in which government agencies end up serving the industries they are supposed to regulate. This week lobbyists for money-market mutual funds provided still more evidence that Stigler deserved his Nobel. At the Securities and Exchange Commission, three of the five commissioners blocked a critical reform to help prevent a taxpayer bailout like the one the industry received in 2008.
Assistant editorial page editor James Freeman on the SEC's nixing a proposed rule that would hold money market funds more accountable.
SEC rules have long allowed money-fund operators to employ an accounting fiction that makes their funds appear safer than they are. Instead of share prices that fluctuate, like other kinds of securities, money funds are allowed to report to customers a fixed net asset value (NAV) of $1 per share—even if that's not exactly true.
As long as the value of a fund's underlying assets doesn't stray too far from that magical figure, fund sponsors can present a picture of stability to customers. Money funds are often seen as competitors to bank accounts and now hold $1.6 trillion in assets.
But during times of crisis, as in 2008, investors are reminded how different money funds are from insured deposits. When one fund "broke the buck"—its asset value fell below $1 per share—it triggered an institutional run on all money funds. The Treasury responded by slapping a taxpayer guarantee on the whole industry.
SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro has been trying to eliminate this systemic risk by taking away the accounting fiction that was created when previous generations of lobbyists captured the SEC. She made the sensible case that money-fund prices should float like the securities they are.
But industry lobbyists are still holding hostages. Commissioners Luis Aguilar, Dan Gallagher and Troy Paredes refused to support reform, so taxpayers can expect someday a replay of 2008. True to the Stigler thesis, the debate has focused on how to maintain the current money-fund business model while preventing customers from leaving in a crisis. The SEC goal should be to craft rules so that when customers leave a fund, it is a problem for fund managers, not taxpayers.
The industry shrewdly lobbied Beltway conservatives, who bought the line that this was a defense against costly regulation, even though regulation more or less created the money-fund industry. Free-market think tanks have been taken for a ride, some of them all too willingly.
The big winners include dodgy European banks, which can continue to attract U.S. money funds chasing higher yields knowing the American taxpayer continues to offer an implicit guarantee.
The industry shouldn't celebrate too much, though, because regulation may now be imposed by the new Financial Stability Oversight Council. Federal Reserve and Treasury officials want to do something, and their preference will probably be more supervision and capital positions that will raise costs that the industry can pass along to consumers. By protecting the $1 fixed NAV, free-marketeers may have guaranteed more of the Dodd-Frank-style regulation they claim to abhor.
The losers include the efficiency and fairness of the U.S. economy, as another financial industry gets government to guarantee its business model. Congratulations.