Friday, April 1, 2011

Your Retirement Investments Might Have Risk but are they a Risk?

Are mutual funds a systemically important financial risk? It seems that so far, the answer is no. To explain what this dreaded SIFI label actually means, the NYU Stern School of Business has developed a risk indicator and alist of the top banks and CEOs capable of bringing the whole system down should their activities run into problems.

Senator Chris Dodd and Rep. Barney Frank, authors of the Dodd-Frank comprehensive financial reform law began identifying which institutions could be the most troublesome for the economy as a whole should they fail. It was one thing suggesting that all banks with $50 billion plus in assets be labeled as SIFI. But other institutions could also create risk and in the time since the creation of the reform law, other large entities have scrambled to get out of the way. Ideally, the right balance, not too many and not too few, something the Brookings Institute suggests as a Goldilocks problem, is what the law is aiming to create.

At a recent conference held in February, Doug Elliot asked the question: "So, if you’re going to define systemically important financial institutions you have to have some concept of what systemic risk is.  And you have to have some way of measuring it, at least in some subjective manner.  And are then setting a threshold to say where does something go from having too little systemic risk to worry about to enough that it should be treated separately here?" Mr. Elliot is well known as a former investment banker, former head and founder of COFFI, his own think tank, and a very prolific and insightful writer on financial reform issues with a book soon to be published titled "Uncle Sam in Pinstripes".

The biggest fear is what is known as a domino effect. Essentially, if a number of SIFI act in unison or a number of institutions engage in the same financial activities with an SIFI labeled entity, failure would knock one, then the next over, creating a systematic breakdown. But identifying who is at the greatest risk is a lot tougher than it sounds. Mr. Elliot points out that both irrational panic, such as a run on a bank creates, and rational panic, such as identifying the problem but making a wrongheaded assumption that whatever the problem is, it isn't really that bad, can both add to the systematic tumbling of one institution, and then another.

The recent crisis had a component about it that it turns out isn't all that unusual. In fact, most of the problems in the recent history all possess the same problems: assets that were overvalued and folks knew it and leverage that was chasing it, even if it knew it was overvalued. This embracing of risk is what causes systems to break and in some cases, have the potential for bringing the whole of the economy down with it.

Given their size, mutual funds were considered as well in the discussion (which can be found here). They are not directly leveraged nor are they intermediaries (such as insurers and re-insurers) or affiliates of larger financial institutions. In fact, mutual funds are generally referred to as pass-through entities. But some funds have worried regulators based on their size. But that size is not threatening if it isn't used as leverage.

The one exception Mr. Elliot pointed out was the money market mutual fund, an entity that many believe is, or should I say, was, as a safe as a bank - at least in the mind of the average investor. A buck, they thought was always a buck, until one moment during the financial crisis, when a MMF declared ti wasn't. Investors were told that there was risk. But with this sort of situation having never occurred, the risk was set aside for most investors.

While mutual funds may have escaped the scrutiny of those studying these financial risks, hedge funds, institutional investors (pensions) and some investment firms have not. Just because some funds fit some of the criteria, of which six are listed, doesn't mean that the Frank-Dodd regulations would necessarily miss this group altogether. They do have size but because of the number of funds available, they provide numerous substitutes for the services and products they provide investors.

There is an adequate degree of separation from other financial firms, an borrowing that they may do (leverage) is clearly stated by most funds in their charter. While many of the largest funds do face some liquidity risk if investors lose faith in the ability of the fund to perform, it usually occurs as a dribble of discontent rather than a one day sell-off. Mutual funds tend to keep a limited amount of cash on hand so a sell-off would be something that whole of the marketplace would be experiencing rather than just a handful of large funds (which all tend to be indexed to the market and not actively managed entities. In truth, funds that become too large, tend to lumber when attempting to move in either direction.

Those large index funds are passive. But some large bond funds may not be but their size keeps any sort of maturity mismatch from occurring. And the existing level of regulatory oversight provided by the SEC is seen as adequate to protect the overall system from any imminent problems.

Although MMF aren't necessarily problematic, as the Investment Company Institute, the lobby arm of the industry points out: "a liquidity backstop could provide reassurance to investors and thereby limit the risk that liquidity concerns in a single fund might spur in-creased redemptions".  There is a possibility that hedge funds might see this as an opportunity to roll what they do into into mutual funds. But the regulations provided by the SEC make this not as attractive.

It may be too soon for the mutual fund industry to breath a sigh of relief. While one or more of the 243 rules and 59 studies commissioned by Dodd-Frank may still find mutual funds in the crosshairs of the reform law, the industry believes that this will not happen.

Paul Petillo is the managing editor of and a fellow Boomer

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