(Originally published in Bond Buyer December 1, 2020)
Money market funds (MMFs) have long been a staple in brokerage accounts as a safe place to stash cash that’s not being invested. In light of the events of the past year, it’s time financial advisors and their clients re-examine this approach.
Historically, MMFs have been used to provide safety, liquidity, and yield. In today’s market, these funds now fall short on multiple fronts. The onset of the Federal Reserve’s zero interest rate policy has eroded the value proposition of MMFs considerably, to the point where several trillion dollars of MMFs are no longer an attractive option for individual investors.
To understand why, we must first examine the origins of MMFs. The idea was remarkably simple: help clients obtain a higher yield than bank accounts by buying short-term government securities. Pooled together, there were sufficient funds to actively trade in and out of these securities, picking up yield by taking slightly longer duration and a little bit more risk. With enough scale, a fund manager could be paid circa 0.15% in fees to select, buy, and sell these bonds, and investors could pick up higher yield through an instrument that looked pretty safe, given that the underlying securities were government bonds and other short-term paper. As long as all investors didn’t run for the exits at the same time, clients would be able to access funds the next-day, while earning yield that was higher than that offered by a brick-and-mortar bank account.
Of course, there’s rarely a free lunch in finance. This became painfully apparent during the financial crisis when the Reserve Primary Fund broke the buck. When investors sought liquidity from this MMF at the same time, the underlying securities had to be sold at a discount and investors lost principal when they couldn’t get back 100 cents on the dollar. While there have been few such failures of MMFs relative to the trillions of dollars in these funds over the past few decades, taking on the risk of any loss of principal only makes sense if you’re able to pick up additional yield that justifies it. Today, that risk-reward equation doesn’t hold, since MMFs yield substantially less than FDIC-insured online savings accounts.
Many Fed watchers expect the current near-zero rate environment – which has driven down MMF yields – will persist for several years. One need only look at the yield curve to conclude that low-interest rates will be with us for a while. The recovery of our economy – and thus, rate policy – will depend significantly on the course of the pandemic.
The most prominent government MMFs yield only five basis points (0.05%), and while prime funds may yield slightly more, they also carry more risk. Under the Securities and Exchange Commission’s new rules promulgated following the financial crisis, retail-held prime funds can be subject to 10-day redemption gates and redemption penalties of 1-2% in periods of financial stress, making it potentially even harder to access cash when needed. For clients seeking safety, liquidity and yield there are far better options than MMFs.
What’s a much simpler solution for keeping client cash safe? Plain vanilla FDIC-insured savings accounts. Today’s leading online banks – which are able to pay higher yield by eschewing brick-and-mortar branches – are delivering yields of 0.40% to 0.60%. Through platforms like MaxMyInterest, some are even able to pay rates as high as 0.85% — a full 80 basis point premium over a government money market fund. With the funds sitting in FDIC-insured and same-day liquid accounts, this incremental yield comes with greater safety and liquidity as compared to an MMF.
Sadly, institutional investors can’t easily benefit from FDIC insurance coverage in scale and so will remain beholden to MMFs for the time being. But, for retail investors who hold six-to-seven figures in cash, FDIC-insured bank accounts can deliver dramatically higher yield than money market funds.
Given the recent economic challenges and market volatility, financial advisors are looking for safer, higher-yielding options for their clients’ cash – and are turning to one that was previously overlooked: online saving accounts. Advisors would be smart to take note of advisor-oriented solutions that can help clients maintain a cash cushion during times of financial stress while earning higher yield along the way.
Take a look at your clients’ brokerage statements. If they’re sitting in MMFs or earning 0.01% on a broker’s cash sweep, it may be time to reevaluate your strategy for cash. Your clients will thank you.