Forget about breaking the buck. At this point, beleaguered shareholders of the Reserve Primary Fund are probably ready to break somebody's neck.
The battered money market fund is liquidating its assets, and impatient investors -- yes, investors, I can't call them savers at this point -- aren't going to like it.
The fund is distributing a mere $20 billion in assets in the imploded money market fund to its shareowners, amounting to a pathetic $0.32 on the dollar. More distributions should be forthcoming, but the fund "cannot currently estimate when additional distributions to investors will be made."
In all fairness, the distributions should be substantial once the fund is able to liquidate all of its assets -- which stood at roughly $60 billion before the fund halted redemptions two weeks ago -- but it's not going to be pretty.
Primary's downfall started earlier this month, when holding on to seemingly worthless Lehman Bros. commercial paper marked down the fund's net asset value -- or NAV -- to $0.97 a share.
Money market funds try to maintain a consistent NAV of $1.00. Since they buy high-quality, ultra-short commercial paper and government instruments and hold them to their brief maturities, there are no capital gains or losses to worry about. The funds simply pass on the income after taking a small chunk out for fund expenses.
Unfortunately, these are tricky times, where apparently stable companies like Lehman can self-destruct in a matter of trading days.
Money markets are a big business. Bankrate.com (Nasdaq: RATE ) sells plenty of online advertising to bankroll its magnetic list of competitive money market fund yields. E*Trade (Nasdaq: ETFC ) markets a bank-affiliated money market account with FDIC insurance and above-average yields, while Charles Schwab (Nasdaq: SCHW ) markets its own money market funds as sweep options for brokerage customers.
So how safe is that money market fund of yours? If you have to sacrifice a little in yield, a money market that invests solely in government securities is a safer bet. You may also want to stick with companies that can't risk their reputations on breaking the buck. Primary was essentially a money fund juggernaut. Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) , Wachovia (NYSE: WB ) , and Legg Mason (NYSE: LM ) all had to fortify their funds last year. Discount broker TD AMERITRADE (Nasdaq: AMTD ) even offered to make its accountholders whole when Primary Reserve was marked down to $0.97 a share.
It remains to be seen how much further it will cover investors, but the painful moral of the story is that even money market investors better learn to cover themselves.
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