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KAI RYSSDAL: If you want to scare the bejeesus out of a Wall Street money market fund manager, all you have to do is mention this phrase, "breaking the buck." It's kind of an insider's reference to the value of a fund falling below $1 a share. Which is all but officially verboten. But it has apparently happened to a bond fund managed by General Electric. It's not a money market fund, per se. But it's pretty close. So the news set off some alarm bells in the financial press today.
From New York, Marketplace's Amy Scott reports.
AMY SCOTT: Last week GE Asset Management sent an email to investors in its "enhanced cash fund." The message offered them a chance to get their money back, at least most of it. The fund had lost money on mortgage-backed securities. And given the potential for further losses, GE spokesman Russell Wilkerson says all investors outside GE took the offer.
RUSSELL WILKERSON: We wanted to make them aware of the current market conditions and give them the option of taking out 96 cents on the dollar. They looked at the market and evaluated it from their perspective, and thought that was the right option for them.
Wilkerson says the investors walked away about $24 million poorer in all. Pretty small potatoes, actually. These are big-time institutional investors. They knew the fund could lose money. But when the business press reported the losses, people started to worry.
An enhanced cash fund like GE's acts a bit like a money market mutual fund. Managers rarely let their fund's asset value slip below $1 a share. Bank of America, Legg Mason and Wachovia have all put up extra cash recently to keep their money funds from breaking the buck.
Peter Crane tracks the industry for Crane Data. He says it's worth the expense.
PETER CRANE: They're doing it because it's much cheaper than seeing their mutual fund franchise deteriorate.
So far Crane says investors don't seem to be abandoning money market funds. Last week the funds passed the $3 trillion dollar mark for the first time, and in their 37-year history only one money market fund has collapsed. Investors lost just six cents on the dollar.
In New York, I'm Amy Scott for Marketplace.