All fixed-income securities can be divided into two categories. Bonds and notes that have maturities longer than 270 days are considered to be in the capital market, while those with maturities of 270 days or less are classified as money market securities. While they are considered to be very safe and highly liquid, most money market instruments are bought and sold in very large blocks in a dealer-only market, which made them largely inaccessible to small investors.
Mutual funds that held money market instruments were introduced in the 1970s in order to allow individuals to profit from this sector, and they quickly grew in popularity for many reasons. These funds are now commonly used as cash accounts by brokerage firms, banks and other financial institutions and now hold nearly $3 trillion worldwide.
Money market funds are somewhat unique in the mutual fund arena because they are strictly designed to maintain a constant stable price of $1.00 per share at all times. They only pay interest and never produce dividends or capital gains of any kind. There are four main categories of money market funds.
The first category invests solely in short-term Treasury securities while the second invests both in those as well as other governmental issues. The third type of money market fund is by far the most common and the list of short-term securities that it can hold Treasury Bills, commercial paper, repurchase agreements, whiskey warehouse receipts, bankers’ acceptances, short-term CDs, eurodollars and other similar instruments with maturities of 120 days or less.
The fourth category is comprised of tax-free money market funds that invest solely in municipal offerings from a specific jurisdiction. The funds in the first two categories that invest solely in governmental securities can provide state-tax free income. As with any other type of fixed-income mutual fund, the yields that money market funds offer are closely tied to interest rates.
Pros and Cons of Money Market Funds
Money market funds offer several advantages that make them attractive for use as cash account vehicles. Unlike other types of mutual funds, they are completely liquid, and investors can draw cash out of them at any time in the same manner as they can with any other type of demand deposit bank account using checks or debit cards.
Money market funds also typically pay slightly higher interest rates than traditional savings and checking accounts, Tax-free money market funds can also offer an additional boost for those in the highest tax brackets who want to avoid generating further taxable income. There are also typically few or no fees or sales charges associated with these funds, and they can be bought and sold at any time in the same manner that money can be deposited and withdrawn from a bank or other savings account.
The biggest drawback that money market funds pose is simply that they offer very low returns compared to equities or other asset classes over time. Investors who keep cash in these funds for long periods of time risk missing out on more profitable rates of return elsewhere, and the rates of interest that they earn here will seldom outpace inflation. There have also been isolated incidents where money market funds have dropped below their $1.00 share price for at least short periods of time, although this has been very rare and only occurred in funds that were not housed in FDIC or privately insured accounts.
Some money market funds also require some sort of minimum deposit, such as $500 or $1,000. And while there are very seldom any transaction costs associated with money market funds, they do have expense ratios like any other fund, although they are usually very low (somewhere below 0.5% in most cases).
Common Uses of Money Market Funds
Most banks and other financial institutions use money market funds as “sweep” accounts that hold cash for clients. Any deposits, sales proceeds or other funds that are otherwise not being used are automatically swept into these funds to earn interest until they are needed. Most financial institutions specifically designate one or more money market funds to be used in-house as cash sweep accounts. Virtually every mutual fund company also has one or more of its own proprietary money market funds that are used for the same purpose.
Major Money Market Funds
Money market funds that are offered by the big-name mutual fund companies hold billions of dollars of cash for investors. Fidelity Cash Reserves (FDRXX) holds $115.5 billion in cash currently and J.P. Morgan’s Prime Money Market fund (CJPXX) holds over $55 billion. Of course, bigger is not necessarily better; American Century, Fidelity, T. Rowe Price and Vanguard also offer money market funds with some of the lowest expense ratios available. For a list of money market funds that fit your needs, visit the Morningstar website.
The Subprime Mortgage Meltdown of 2008 resulted in an analysis of money market funds by the SEC. It conducted a study of the risks and stability of these funds and enacted a series of changes and improvements designed to enhance their resiliency in 2010. However, the Commission voted in 2013 to take further measures to ensure the continued safety and stability of these funds, which could require them to diversify their holdings to a greater extent and also provide additional disclosures.
The Bottom Line
Money market mutual funds stand apart from other types of mutual funds that typically oscillate in share price on a daily basis. These funds offer liquidity, banking privileges and a high degree of safety and are used by all forms of banks and savings institutions, brokerage and investment firms and inside variable annuities. Their primary use is to hold cash until it is needed for another purpose, and they typically pay fairly low rates of interest, although their yields are usually slightly higher than other types of guaranteed savings accounts. For more information on money market funds, consult your local bank or financial advisor.
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