Just how are investors and the general public supposed to find out when a money market mutual fund runs into trouble?
The answer is to scour financial statements and press releases with a magnifying glass. Or so it seems, judging from the way Fleet Financial Group recently disclosed its move to pump $5 million into three money market mutual funds. with $1.9 billion of assets.
The cash infusion came to prominence earlier this week in a Wall Street Journal story. But Fleet had actually explained the move in July 20 press release for its second quarter earnings.
Not that it's hard to figure out why the disclosure escaped notice for a month.
The sentence in question was on page three of the earnings release, in a paragraph outlining $500 million of noninterest expenses. It said: "The results also include a $5 million charge relating to the sale of certain short- to intermediate-term government agency instruments held in three proprietary money market funds, with the proceeds reinvested in instruments considered more appropriate for these types of funds."
It turns out that these instruments were actually derivatives known as cost-of-fund index floaters and dual index floaters, according to a knowledgeable source who asked not to be named. Both types of instruments pay interest rates that tend to lag prevailing rates. The lagging rates made the derivatives good investments when interest rates were going down, but not so good when rates rose earlier this year.
The securities were also of a variety deemed too risky for money funds by the Securities and Exchange Commission. On June 30, the SEC asked any money funds that held them to shed them.
The Fleet funds in question - the Galaxy Money Market Fund, the Galaxy Government Fund, and the Galaxy U.S. Treasury Fund - began buying the derivatives in 1992, according to a Fleet spokesman.
The funds held $260 million of the instruments by the time they began selling them in June.
The securities fetched only 96 cents to 99 cents for every dollar of face value, the source said. That's why the banking company had to make the cash infusion to maintain the share price.
At the time of the cash donation, other money fund managers had similar problems. San Francisco-based BankAmerica Corp., for example, made a $50.5 million capital addition to two separate money market funds in July, following $17.4 million addition to one the funds in May.
In July, Wilmington Trust Corp., of Delaware, made a similar addition of just Under a million dollars to one Of its money market funds. Both banks made separate news releases describing the transactions.
Fleet did not. Nor did it have to.
By Securities and Exchange Commission rules, occurrences such as these must be described in footnotes to money funds' annual and semiannual reports.
Money fund managers face no requirement to make more prominent disclosures. Nor does the Securities and Exchange Commission" have to be told, although the agency has-been told of more than a dozen such instances this year, said Robert Plaze, assistant director of the agency's division of investment management.
But Mr. Plaze said that the agency is refusing to disclose the names of investment advisers that made these-moves.
Which means that unless someone stumbles across a juicy tidbit in a financial statement, most of the money funds that got stung by derivatives will remain in what must be blissful anonymity for their investment advisers.