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Posts Tagged ‘new tax free X-tender’

Municipal Money Market Funds: Caveat Emptor

Posted by Larry Doyle on June 29th, 2009 6:17 PM |

If and when your money market fund “breaks the buck,” will you be there to collect the change?

I believe it is increasingly likely that money market funds will “break the buck.” The recent SEC statement put forth by SEC Chair Mary Schapiro, which I highlighted in writing “The Buck Is Beginning to Break”, addresses this topic.

In that post, I specifically referenced my concern for municipal money market funds given the recent launch of a municipal version of an Auction-Rate Security, designated as an x-Tender by Wall Street. I walked you through the processing and packaging of this mystery meat in writing, “The Wall Street ‘Sausage Making’ Process.”

Today the Wall Street Journal offers another whiff of the factory and gives us further reason to stay away from municipal money funds specifically. The WSJ writes, Mutual-Fund Giants Give Mixed Reviews to SEC Proposals:

The SEC proposed requiring retail money-market funds to have at least 5% of their assets in cash, U.S. Treasury Securities or securities that are accessible within one day and at least 15% in assets that can be converted to cash within a week. Institutional money-market funds would be required to have at least 10% of assets in instruments that could be converted into cash within one day and at least 30% in securities that could be converted within one week. The rules wouldn’t apply to tax-exempt, municipal money-market funds. (LD’s emphasis)

Why and how is it that newly designed rules for a $3.8 trillion sector of the market can exclude a sector encompassing municipal funds? My antennae went up immediately upon reading that. What is different about municipal money market funds that would exclude them from a set of rules designed to protect investors?

Why doesn’t the WSJ itself pursue this line of questioning in writing the article. How can the industry segregate municipal money market funds?

Municipal finance has been largely dependent on newly defined Build America Bonds which entail an obligation by Uncle Sam. Call me suspicious, but I wonder if the exclusion of  municipal money market funds is due to the hoped for salvation of municipal finance via the municipal auction-rate security, x-Tender, otherwise known as Porky Pig here at Sense on Cents.

I will keep my nose to the ground in an attempt to sniff this out.  Anybody who can help us determine the nature of this stench, please share. In the meantime, stay away from municipal money market funds.


Who Protects Investors from Regulators?

Posted by Larry Doyle on June 19th, 2009 2:44 PM |

Is there anything worse than being violated by an individual in a position of trust? Crimes perpetrated by regular citizens are one thing, but crimes perpetrated by individuals in a position of public trust, in my opinion, are the most heinous. I am speaking of members of the clergy, teachers, law enforcement, and public servants.

When engaged in private business, individuals typically remain on guard from fraudulent and criminal behavior. That innate defense mechanism is usually relaxed when engaged with a public or quasi-public official. Given that vulnerability, the violation is far more painful due to the emotional damage even if the actual financial costs are minimal.

As I go down this path, let me emphasize the obvious – that is, the presumption of innocence and due process.

1. Today we learn that as part of the case against Allen Stanford, an indictment has also been handed down against Antiguan financial regulator Leroy King. Bloomberg reports that King not only took bribes from Stanford but also showed Stanford information relating to the government’s developing case.

If in fact these allegations are true, King aided and abetted the fraud which is speculated to be of a magnitude of $1-7 billion dollars.

2. In regard to the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, we have no evidence to indicate criminal intent or activity on behalf of anybody at the SEC. That said, the SEC – by its own admission – failed to perform its duties. For those impacted by the Madoff fraud, the lack of accountability by the SEC is no less damaging than if there were criminal activity. Why is that? The length of time over which Madoff perpetrated the scheme along with the amount of evidence provided by Harry Markopolos was so overwhelming and should have minimized the damage, both financial and emotional.

3. We do have evidence of potential culpability on behalf of FINRA in the Auction-Rate Securities fraud. FINRA was headed by Mary Schapiro, current head of the SEC. This fraud is MANY MULTIPLES the size of the fraud perpetrated by Allen Stanford. Professionals, both inside and outside of the financial industry, have estimated that there are anywhere from $80 billion to $175 billion ARS (of a $330 billion market) still outstanding.

Let’s take the midpoint of those estimates, $125 billion, as a best guess of outstanding ARS positions. These securities do not actively trade, like government bonds, but in speaking with Kevin O’Connor of Second Market, he shared that bonds trade around 75 cents on the dollar. Thus, we are looking at approximately $30 billion in losses on a mark-to-market basis.

FINRA’s potential culpability stems from the fact that they liquidated their own ARS holdings in 2007. I have asked repeatedly and will put forth once again, for the benefit of those thousands of investors and billions of dollars:

-what was the exact trade date of FINRA’s ARS liquidation?
-through whom did they liquidate their ARS position?
-what price were they paid for their ARS position?
-did they possess material non-public information about the ARS market failing and act upon it?

The U.S. attorney and SEC are investigating executives from Lehman (Gia Rys, Alex Kirk) for potentially front running the ARS market in 2007. Will we ever find out if FINRA did the same? FINRA is charged with protecting investors. They certainly failed to protect investors in Auction-Rate Securities.

4. Given the fraud involved in the marketing and distribution of ARS, I am blown away by the fact that the SEC, now headed by Ms. Schapiro, blessed the marketing and distribution of the new version of municipal ARS, known as x-Tender, or henceforth called Porky Pig here at Sense on ¢ents. Please see my post earlier today, An Auction-Rate Pig by Any Other Name Is Still a Pig.

Sad but true, as we enter the Brave New World of the Uncle Sam economy, investors need to remain diligent and should not assume that regulators are necessarily protecting them.


An Auction-Rate Pig by Any Other Name is Still a Pig

Posted by Larry Doyle on June 19th, 2009 10:20 AM |

The brazen balls of both Wall Street and Washington know no limits. Hat tip to Kathy for pointing out to me that Wall Street is now running a new version of the Auction-Rate Securities play.

Recall that the Auction-Rate Securities fraud has left thousands of investors and billions of dollars frozen. While that fraud remains outstanding, Wall Street is calling an “audible” but at its core it is the same play. This smells!! Make sure you wear some heavy boots as we take a walk through the sty.

The Wall Street Journal highlights the particulars of this charade, New Security Shifts Risk to Borrower:

It didn’t take long for Wall Street to dress up an old idea and make it seem new again.

Wall Street firms including Citigroup Inc., Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Morgan Stanley & Co. have introduced a new security for the damaged municipal-bond market, meant to fill the role once played by securities that lost investor confidence in the peak of the market panic.

Their effort is part of Wall Street’s search for new ways to create business after a crippling nine months of crisis and government intervention. Much like auction-rate, variable-rate, and corporate floating-rate debt, the new tax-free “Windows” or “X-tender” securities offer municipalities the ability to borrow for the long term while paying only short-term interest rates.

This model proved dangerous during the credit crisis. Banks and bond insurers — who offered both express and tacit guarantees to backstop the debt — failed to live up to some of their promises. These securities became untradeable and dropped in value, leaving money-market funds in jeopardy of “breaking the buck.” Borrowers like municipalities, nonprofit institutions and student-lending companies faced penalizing interest rates well over 10% for months.

Like auction-rate securities and other variable-rate debt, the new instruments have an interest rate that resets every week, but this one is based on a short-term municipal debt index. The securities act like short-term debt and are appealing to money market funds that need to be able to sell their investments quickly.

This time, though, the banks removed some of the weak links from auction-rate securities and variable-rate demand bonds. Instead of banks or bond insurers acting as a guarantor or buyer of last resort at the auctions — which they were increasingly forced to do last year — the borrower itself promises to accelerate repayment. The borrower has seven months to repay.

Let’s review some of the driving forces and principles behind this new “Porky Pig” designated as “Windows” or “X-tender” securities:

1. Muncipalities are increasingly unable to finance themselves via the long term debt market. If municipalities can finance themselves, the rates are extremely high. This “pig” offers them a vehicle to sell into the deep, short term money-market arena with a “promise” by the municipality to repay these obligations if auctions fail.

2. The banks and brokers remain on the hook for tens of billions of dollars for not having lived up to the same ‘promise’ in the previous iteration of Auction-Rate Securities. That said, they are more than happy to facilitate this version and collect the fees for doing so.

3. Money market funds are flush with cash from investors who are increasingly risk averse. How will the funds that purchase these “pigs” market the fact that they are taking this degree of risk in the fund? Will brokers and managers fully highlight that fact, or will it be business as usual and keep the investors in the dark?

Wall Street and Washington are, once again, willing to oblige this version of a Ponzi scheme because there is lots of up front money to be made. The WSJ offers as much:

Despite the risks, the Securities and Exchange Commission blessed the instruments, allowing money-market funds to buy the debt.

Banks are also taking advantage of pent-up demand from municipalities that need money. Outstanding issuance of variable-rate debt has shrunk by approximately $100 billion in 2008 — a 20% drop, according to Municipal Market Advisors. The banks are now estimating as much as $10 billion in such “Windows” deals could hit the market over the next six months. So far, at least two municipalities have sold the debt and another deal is close to completion.

Sense on ¢ents strongly encourages investors to take the following approach:

1. Stay as far away from this product as possible. I am willing to bet this product will not be sold directly, but will strictly be ‘buried’ inside money market funds. Be careful!!

2. Ask your brokers or advisers if they are aware of this product; bring this to their attention!

3. If a broker or adviser is pitching a money market fund to you, make sure the fund does not have exposure to this garbage.

Oink, oink!!


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