A bit more thuggish than what Geithner actually wrote (“the Council’s authority to designate systemically important payment, clearing, or settlement activities under Title VIII of the Dodd-Frank Act could enable the application of heightened risk-management standards on an industry-wide basis”), but more accurate.
The latest wrangling over money-market mutual funds is something bigger than the routine battle between financial regulators and the lobbyists paid to influence them. Rather, it is a vivid illustration of some of the hidden costs of bailouts — in this case, the government rescue of the $2.6 trillion money-market mutual fund industry in 2008 that was so successful it took away any sense of urgency for major reform.
When a problem comes out of nowhere, causes a financial crisis and wrecks the economy, it is deeply unfortunate. But when a problem that has been staring everyone in plain sight does the same, it’s just a tragedy.
Money-market mutual funds serve as part of the bedrock of the American financial system, serving as a way for millions of Americans to save money in a financial product that (normally) offers better returns than bank savings accounts and is (normally) very safe — and then funnels that money to companies that issue short-term debt, thus funding their operations.
How do we know that this system has flaws? Because they nearly brought down the financial system in 2008. After the Reserve Primary Fund suffered losses on its holdings of Lehman Brothers debt, it “broke the buck” — told investors that a savings vehicle they presumed was ultra-safe had actually experienced a loss. In the days that followed, investors in other funds withdrew money on a vast scale, which was a modern version of an old-fashioned bank run. As they pulled out money, the funds were forced to sell off the securities they owned, in an already panicked environment.
If it had continued unabated, millions of Americans would have lost what they viewed as the most secure portion of their savings, more global banks (which rely on that funding) would have collapsed or required bailouts and the ordinary companies that rely on money-market funds buying their short-term debt to finance their routine operations could have been out of luck.
To prevent that outcome, the government stepped in with a wave of programs from the Treasury and the Federal Reserve to backstop the industry. And the mutual fund companies themselves decided to subsidize their money-market funds; according to a study from the Boston Fed, at least 21 more funds would have broken the buck had their management companies not chosen to inject. Between government help and subsidies from the fund companies themselves, no more funds broke the buck and eventually the “shadow bank run” ended.