What Is Your Money Market Fund Worth?

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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. (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.

Other buck-breaking headlines:

Bank of America is a Motley Fool Income Investor pick. Legg Mason is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Bankrate is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers selection. Charles Schwab is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. The Fool owns shares of Legg Mason. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz can break a buck, but he can't buck a break. He does not own shares in any of the stocks in this article. He is also a member of the Rule Breakers analytical team, seeking out the next great growth stock early in its existence. The Fool has a disclosure policy.

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  • Report this Comment On September 30, 2008, at 5:50 PM, Ishortyou wrote:

    Looks like Wachovia got rid off the prior toxic risky wasted bank subsidiaries and kept the good ones. Now it can start from scratch to build a new banking subsidiary with safe practice together with its remaining good outstanding subsidiaries. The current subsidiaries of Wachovia make it look like "Merrill Lynch without the toxic risky waste", good job from management it separated the good bank from the bad bank overnight, plus its CEO Bob Steel is one of the top rated mutual fund managers. Wachovia will keep the valuable human resources and the talent that have expirience in the banking business saving them for the new banking subsidiary. Buying the municipal bonds or the auction rate securities will give the inflow of cash as long as its hold even to maturity, so the prospects are good. Some investors are taking money away from Hedge Funds going wild and putting that money into accounts manage by people that know what they are doing, Bob Steel is one of those people that know what they are doing, dont be surprise some of this money will go to Wachovia subsidiaries. Earnings will be adjusted accordingly, like simple arithmetics they will manage its expenses vs its earnings to come ahead in capital and start piling up cash (saving cash a hard job for most of us that live on debt), this new cash will give them the jump start of a new banking subsidiary without even thinking about to sell its remaining subsidiaries

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