BOSTON -- The more informed you are, the better. Yet there's so much information about mutual funds available, from performance data to legal disclosures, that it's understandable to wonder what information you really need to know.
For the past three weeks, many investors have been able to check out new information that falls into this category. On a fund company's website, they can click on list of available money-market funds to see daily updates showing tiny changes in the market value of a money fund's portfolio.
Average investors and institutions use these safe-harbor investments as parking places for cash that's temporarily kept out of stocks or higher-yielding segments of the bond market.
Goldman Sachs on Jan. 9 became the first to post daily values of its money funds. More than a half-dozen other companies have since followed suit or announced similar plans. They include the largest money fund provider, Fidelity Investments, as well as such names as Charles Schwab, Federated Investors, BlackRock, JPMorgan and Charles Schwab.
There's minimal practical value for average investors to review these numbers. Money funds get relatively little attention because they're low-risk investments, and their portfolios of short-term bonds generate tiny returns even in the best of times.
But by voluntarily making these daily disclosures, the money fund industry is doing more than just serving investors. It's trying to convince regulators that it's open to some degree of change, in hopes of heading off more far-reaching rules that are under consideration to stabilize money funds.
"All of a sudden, the industry got religion on transparency," says Peter Crane of money fund researcher Crane Data. "It's throwing a bone to regulators."
With its leadership in transition, it's too early to say how the Securities and Exchange Commission will react to the industry's increased openness. But the step could convince regulators that there's no need to require funds to hold loss reserves -- there are none currently -- or that there's no need to set limits on how quickly investors can withdraw cash.
Generating even more industry opposition is a proposal that the value of money fund shares float, rather than be kept at the current fixed $1 per share. Allowing money funds to be priced slightly above or below $1 would reflect the market value of the fund's holdings at a given time.
With nearly $2.7 trillion in assets, money funds' critical role in the financial system became clear during the financial crisis. In September 2008, a large money fund collapsed and investors pulled more than $300 billion from money funds in a matter of days. Short-term credit markets froze and the government rescued money funds by extending temporary guarantees. This created headaches for corporate and local government treasurers, who use cash invested by money fund shareholders to cover short-term needs such as payroll and purchasing.
After the crisis, the industry largely embraced new SEC rules to stabilize money funds. But some regulators say additional changes are needed. The industry says that proposals such as withdrawal restrictions and floating asset values would make money funds so unattractive that investors would pull out of them altogether.
Restrictions backed by former SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro stalled last summer when she couldn't secure backing from a majority of the five-member panel. President Obama has nominated Mary Jo White to replace Schapiro. The week after Obama's re-election, the Financial Stability Oversight Council urged the SEC to adopt stricter rules, putting pressure on White to act if her appointment is approved.
In anticipation, the industry has rolled out the new daily public disclosures on money fund values. They provide far more information than the monthly updates that fund companies began providing to regulators a couple years ago.
So far, money funds are making daily disclosures covering more than half of the industry's assets, according to Crane Data. But there are some holdouts. One is Vanguard, which argues that the majority of its money fund investors are individuals, rather than institutions that might have greater interest in frequent disclosures.
Daily changes in the values of Vanguard's largest money fund, with $122 billion in assets, have been minimal, a Vanguard spokeswoman said.
Indeed, there's been little alarming information from the daily disclosures so far. If that keeps up, it could show that there's no need for tighter money fund rules, says Lance Pan, research director at Capital Advisors Group, which assesses risks for investment clients such as corporate treasurers.
Each of the more than 200 funds that Crane Data tracked through Jan. 22 posted net asset values above $1 a share. On average, the funds published market values of $1.0002, or a dollar and two-hundredths of a penny. Typically, values are rounded off to four decimal places.
"Anyone tracking this should expect to see a lot of zeros," Crane says. "So far, there have been no nines, and that's good."
For example, a fund reporting a value of 99.9999 cents means there was temporarily a slip below the $1-a-share benchmark, measured by the latest value. However, investors withdrawing cash from the fund could still get back $1 for each dollar they invested, because the disclosures reflect the market's latest asset pricing, rather than how much investors get when they redeem.
A fund with a value slightly below $1 wouldn't "break the buck" unless it fell below 99 and a half cents. That's what happened with the Reserve Primary Fund, which collapsed during the financial crisis.
It's not surprising that the new daily asset value disclosures haven't revealed any funds to be at risk of breaking the buck. Markets aren't currently under stress, as they were in 2008.
The next time there's trouble, Crane will check to see whether any funds appear to be at the risk of breaking the buck. For now, however, average investors have little need to pay attention to the new disclosures.
"Anything happening in the world that's important enough to noticeably move a fund's net asset value is probably something that's important enough to be in the newspapers," Crane says. "So you can just stay alert that way, rather than watching all these zeros."