Monday, Nov. 03, 2008

Supposedly "Safe" Securities

Auction-rate securities, the Reserve Fund, CDOs. Auction rate notes gave municipalities, universities, museums and other issuers a vehicle to borrow long, but pay a shorter term interest rate. The mechanism was an auction, and investors looking to get a better short return on their money ate these auctions up. Until their money wasn't returned. Money market funds were supposed to be ultra safe, always maintaining an asset value of $1 per share and always investing in rock solid government bonds to maintain liquidity. The Reserve Fund didn't just follow that principal, its founder, Henry B. R. Brown, created the whole business, with Reserve started in 1970. Money market funds, which unlike bank accounts are not guaranteed by the FDIC, had a practically unassailable record for safety, until Reserve decided to invest in Lehman's highly rated bonds. Investors running for the exits will be lucky to get 98 cents on the dollar. The same kind of security was supposed to have been attached to Collateralized Debt Obligations, those ultimately toxic assemblages of different mortgages that helped sink Wall Street. After all, many were given the AAA seal of approval by the ratings agencies, and we know how reliable they are.