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Today, we excerpt from the April issue of Crane Data's newest publication, Bond Fund Intelligence, which tracks the bond fund marketplace with a focus on the ultra-short and most conservative segments. The article says: Our April Bond Fund Intelligence "profile" interviews `Putnam Investment's Portfolio Managers Joanne Driscoll and Michael Salm, who is also Co-Head of Fixed Income at the firm. Driscoll and Salm run the $2.2 billion Putnam Short Duration Income Fund, one of the largest funds in our Conservative Ultra Short Bond Fund universe. They talk about the importance of differentiating between various types of Ultra Short Bond Funds and why this niche is poised for growth in an environment of rising rates and more regulations.
BFI: How long have you been involved in this space? Driscoll: I have been at Putnam for almost 20 years and currently oversee the short-term liquid markets team where I'm responsible for all of our front-end strategies. Putnam launched Short Duration Income Fund in October 2011 -- with Mike and I serving as the lead managers. In 2009, we looked at the changing regulatory environment for money funds, driven by the pending amendment to SEC Rule 2a-7. While money funds were forced to shorten their investments, issuers were being told by regulators that they needed to become less reliant on the front end and extend the duration of their debt. So, our goal in launching this fund was to leverage the changes in money funds and the opportunities that were created in the market by this change. We felt this would create a demand for a fund just outside of 2a-7, but something more conservative than a short term bond fund.
Salm: During my 18 years at Putnam, I have focused quite a bit on structured products, mortgages in particular. Over time, I have worked a lot on liquid markets in general, focusing on interest rates and volatility, as well as our views about the Fed. In thinking about this strategy, there was a lot of overlap in using our expertise on the front end of the curve and in using our expertise just beyond the traditional 2a-7 venue. We wanted to leverage this very interesting combination of investment processes that you don't necessarily see blended together in normal fund structures.
BFI: How has the Short Duration Income Fund been received? Driscoll: The fund has grown to about $2.2 billion in assets under management. The objectives of our fund are capital preservation and income maximization. Our process is primarily built around the best ideas of our credit team, which focuses on alpha generation within a host of areas. We believe that prudent short term investing requires relentless focus on credit quality and risk management. Due to the nature of the fund, we focus on credit fundamentals and the risk-return trade off. Something that really differentiates Putnam in this space is the way our fixed income team works: We can leverage the entire research team; our analysts cover the sectors across all asset types -- high yield, high grade, money markets, and munis in some cases. With our broader coverage, we can put an intense focus on credit analysis.
We have found that the fallout from the financial crisis has made the ratings agencies reactionary and that impacts many issuers. While our analysts view some of these companies to be either equal to or stronger than prior to the downgrade, due to the ratings requirements of 2a-7, they cannot be purchased by money funds, even though internally we feel that they would be appropriate. These institutions are attractive purchases for Putnam Short Duration Income Fund and add some good yield to the portfolio.
There's a big difference between our fund and our peer group. Putnam Short Duration Income Fund is generally higher quality than many of its peers. We don't buy below investment grade, so we don't have high yield or floating rate bank loans like you see in some competitors. We limit our investments in the low triple-B category because we're trying to minimize the volatility in this fund as much as possible. The reception to the fund has been very positive. We find a lot of investors are challenged by the low level of interest rates and the new 2a-7 amendments. We see more and more interest in the fund because they are looking for products that can add incremental yield over a money fund with low NAV volatility.
BFI: What are the challenges for this fund? Driscoll: For us, it's making sure that financial advisors understand that this is not a money fund or a cash alternative. Prior to the crisis, many firms sold cash alternatives that behaved and looked more like a short term bond fund, and those outcomes, as we know, weren't always good. We spend a significant amount of time educating our financial advisors on the strategy and the risk-return tradeoff, so there are few, if any, surprises. We've seen a large amount of variability in this peer group, so we want to make sure the advisors understand what this fund is.
Salm: In fact, we're very sensitive about distinguishing ourselves so that people know that this category itself can be very heterogeneous. Don't mistake us in any way, shape, or form as a money market fund. We think there's a really good space between the ultra-short bond fund and money market fund categories, which is where the Short Duration Income Fund resides. The fund has been able to meet its objective in the last three years, delivering a high degree of capital preservation and a consistent return.
Watch for more of our latest BFI profile in coming days, or contact us to see the latest issue of our Bond Fund Intelligence. (BFI is $500 a year, or $1,000 including our BFI XLS spreadsheet.)
The latest issue of our flagship Money Fund Intelligence newsletter features the article, "Wells Fargo's Weaver Says Clients Still Want Yield Too," which profiles Wells Capital Management's new head of money market funds, Jeff Weaver. We reprint our Q&A below... When Dave Sylvester, the long-time head of money market funds at Wells Fargo, announced his retirement at the end of 2014, the reins were handed over to Jeff Weaver, who now wears two hats. Weaver, the head of Wells Capital Management's short-duration team, also become head of the money market fund team effective January 1, 2015. We sat down with him to get his thoughts on not just money funds, but on separate accounts and the short‐duration bond fund space. He also discussed how Wells is evaluating its money fund lineup to prepare for the upcoming rule changes.
MFI: How long have you been involved in the money fund space? Weaver: Wells Fargo has been offering money market funds for 30 years. The oldest fund is the Wells Fargo Advantage Treasury Plus Money Market Fund, which has an inception date of Oct. 1, 1985. Our funds and our talent are really the result of various mergers and acquisitions. Currently, we're the 9th largest money fund provider with more than $112 billion. As for me, I joined the firm in 1994. I started my career at Bankers Trust in 1991. For the majority of my career I have been involved in the short duration and money market space. Since 2002, I've overseen the short-duration fixed-income team at Wells Capital Management. My team specializes in managing separate accounts for corporations, municipalities, and other institutional accounts. Our clients typically have large exposures to money market funds and deposits, but they also look to separate accounts and short‐term bond funds to add diversification, customization, and yield.
There's a lot of cooperation and coordination that goes on between the short duration fixed-income team and the money market team. Matt Grimes and his group of analysts are the primary taxable credit research resource for both of these teams. In the past when Dave [Sylvester] headed up money funds, our teams were very much aligned, much like they are today. Over the years, he's been a great advisor and mentor. Today, I'm working very closely with a tremendous core of senior fund managers that includes Laurie White, Mike Bird, Jim Randazzo, Vlad Stavitskiy, and our head of short‐duration municipal credit research, Ken Anderson.
MFI: What is your biggest priority now? Weaver: Our biggest priority is -- and has always been -- our clients. We want to ensure that we are providing them with the best solutions for their liquidity management needs. We aim to offer liquidity and preservation of capital while maintaining a stable NAV. But certainly, we do all of this against the backdrop of money market reform, as the new rules are officially coming into place in October 2016. Here at Wells Fargo, we have a large team dedicated to complying with these new rules with members from operations, fund administration, IT, portfolio management, legal, compliance, and sales. From the operation side, these new rules will take a tremendous effort to implement. When looking at money fund reform through a portfolio management lens, however, the news rules won't prompt a dramatic change from what we've done before. For example, consider our government funds -- we've always complied with them being at least 99.5% invested in government securities.
MFI: Can you tell us about supply? Weaver: We are seeing a consistent lack of supply. Money fund reform is practically at odds with the increased bank regulations we have seen put into effect since the financial crisis in 2008. Money funds rely on extremely short-term funding. Yet, banks are being pressed to move away from short-term debt and to issue longer-term funding. This lack of supply is consistent when you look across each type of money fund (prime, municipal, government). For example, much of the issuance that is available to prime funds is bank originated, creating an endless supply and demand struggle. [We see this], too, in government funds. Bank funding via repurchase agreements comprises a major asset class in government money funds. Also impacting supply is the increase in demand of bills. Banks now are required to hold more high quality liquid assets (HQLA) so bank demand for bills is increasing. This all adds up to a big challenge when managing money funds today.
MFI: Will you make any lineup changes? Weaver: We remain committed to offering retail and institutional prime, government, and municipal funds -- particularly if that's what our clients want -- and we believe they do. Many of our clients are in a wait-and-see mode until that October 2016 deadline approaches. Right now, we're evaluating our product lineup. We're speaking with clients with the goal of developing product solutions that best meet their needs. Our client base is largely institutional -- 90% institutional versus 10% retail -- so that is always front of mind as we're making these changes. Once we finalize a plan of action, we will present it to our Funds' board. We will not make any announcements until the board has seen and approved those changes.
MFI: What concerns are you hearing? Weaver: When the rule changes were first announced, clients initially were quite concerned about the floating NAV. There's still some concern about how that's going to work for same day settlement and sweep type mechanisms, but not as much as before. Clients remain concerned about the capital preservation portion of a variable NAV, although we believe that they will find the NAV changes to be negligible. Lastly, our clients are now having more of a concern around fees and gates. We continue to keep them apprised of our portfolios and regulatory matters through our monthly commentary and education primers.
MFI: How have you handled fee waivers? Weaver: Fee waivers are definitely impacting us, our competitors as well, in this low interest rate environment. We've been waiving fees now for some time, yet we remain convinced that money market funds are an important investment option for our clients. We believe fee waivers to be a temporary factor which will be best solved by an increase in interest rates. Generally speaking, institutional fund yields will react more quickly to increased rates because there are a lot less waivers involved.
MFI: Are you seeing interest in "enhanced cash"? Weaver: We always advise our client to tier their liquidity management strategy. Many of our clients in the money fund space are already customers of our enhanced cash and short-term bond offerings. It certainly is a compelling time to consider other options other than money funds, and that's one of the reasons we have aligned our money market fund and short duration capabilities. In short duration fixed-income funds and separate accounts we have over $60B in assets -- about $40B of that is in separate accounts while the remainder is in ultrashort and short‐term bond funds.
In the ultra‐short space, we have four differentiated offerings -- the Adjustable Rate Government Fund, the Ultra Short-Term Income Fund, the Ultra Short-Term Municipal Income Fund, and the one we get really excited about is our Conservative Income Fund. We feel like it is a natural extension for money fund customers. We launched the Conservative Income Fund in 2013, and utilized the separate account team's track record. The fund has a one-year maximum average duration, and a limit of 3 1/2 years' duration for any one security. Securities purchased are limited to an A-rating or better and are diversified between money market securities, governments, corporate bonds, and asset-backed securities. The fund was designed to look a lot like the institutional investment policies that we've become quite accustomed to seeing over the past three decades. We think that the Conservative Income Fund is a low volatility NAV option, and an extension beyond the money market fund universe that allows clients to pick up additional yield. It can perhaps be a solution for the next step beyond money market funds.
MFI: Tell us about separate accounts. Weaver: The benefits of using separate accounts are that you can get beyond the money market universe and pick up additional yield, but also you have the ability to customize to your preferences and cash flows. We can customize a separate account to reflect each customer's unique return objectives, risk tolerance, biases, and cash flow needs. We manage separate accounts that range from money market fund-like accounts out to benchmarks that are in the one-to-five-year range ... to pick up the additional yield.
We refer to separate accounts just beyond money market funds as "enhanced cash." They tend to have portfolio durations less than one year and keep their maturities at three years or less. They tend to be invested in single-A or better credits although increasingly we've seen clients willing to go lower in credit quality. That's why we created the Conservative Income Fund; it's representative of those enhanced cash separate accounts. We also offer products in the limited duration space. These tend to have durations right around the two‐year mark. We have many variations of these in the separate account side, in addition to our short‐term fund offerings, the Short‐Duration Government Bond, Short‐Term Bond, and Short‐Term Municipal Bond funds.
MFI: Are you launching any new products? Weaver: We're certainly aware of the 60‐day [maximum maturity] money fund option. We have not ruled out anything. We'll certainly consider it. If we feel like that is what is going to help our clients the most, then we will look to pursue it. However, we do get concerned about supply, and wonder if the 60-day fund is going to offer the yield that clients want given the supply/demand dynamics we just discussed. In the end, clients want liquidity, they want capital preservation, but they want yield as well. That's why you haven't seen a shift away from prime funds yet, because for the time being they can continue to earn the additional yield in institutional prime funds.
MFI: What is your outlook for rates? Weaver: We expect the Fed to raise rates this year albeit at a slower pace than we've been accustomed to seeing in previous tightening cycles. The March FOMC meeting, despite the removal of "patient," had a very dovish tone to the comments and perhaps that pushes off the first increase to later in the year. Now, the increased demand for government securities -- not only from a shift from prime to government, but also from banks with their increased HQLA holdings -- could cause the spread between prime and government to increase. Where we are today with government vs. prime, it's only a modest pickup in yield. But it's quite possible that in the future we could see spreads of 25, 40, or even 50 basis points. All of a sudden, it becomes a much different decision for our clients and, at that point, prime funds could be quite attractive.
The April issue of Crane Data's Money Fund Intelligence was sent out to subscribers Wednesday morning. The latest edition of our flagship monthly newsletter features the articles: "BlackRock Latest to Telegraph Changes; 7-Day Max Maturity," which reviews big changes from the country's third largest money fund manager, BlackRock; "Wells Fargo's Weaver Says Clients Still Want Yield Too," which profiles Wells Capital Management's new head of money market funds, Jeff Weaver; and "Deposits, FDIC 'Amalgamators' Growing; Going Inst," which examines the increasing availability of FDIC insurance far above the $250K limit. We have also updated our Money Fund Wisdom database query system with March 31, 2015, performance statistics, and have sent out our MFI XLS spreadsheet. (MFI, MFI XLS and our Crane Index products are all available to subscribers via our Content center.) Our April Money Fund Portfolio Holdings are scheduled to go out on Friday, April 10, and our March Bond Fund Intelligence is scheduled to ship next Wednesday, April 15.
The lead article in MFI on BlackRock and Western's Changes says, "Another month, another major announcement in the money market fund world. This time it’s from the second largest money fund manager, BlackRock, which informed clients of significant changes to its MMF lineup, including fund conversions, liquidations, and the addition of innovative new 7-day maximum maturity funds. Also notable: the fourth largest MMF, BlackRock TempFund -- a Prime Institutional fund -- will remain as is. BlackRock writes in its April 6 letter, "A number of clients have indicated they are interested in continuing to invest in prime funds. We plan to maintain our largest prime fund, the $66.5 billion TempFund as a prime institutional fund. Our historical analysis shows that in normal market conditions, TempFund has demonstrated minimal per share net asset value volatility. Given the anticipated forward environment, we believe that institutional prime funds are likely to offer investors a compelling yield premium relative to CNAV government funds."
On the proposed 7-day maximum maturity funds the article comments, "The $2.4 billion BlackRock TempCash Fund, however, will be converted to a 7-day maximum maturity fund, essentially eliminating the floating NAV and the concerns over emergency gates and fees. The letter explains, "Some clients have indicated interest in a cash investment product that fits between a CNAV government fund and a FNAV institutional prime fund.... BlackRock will offer an institutional prime fund that limits holdings to those with a maturity of seven days or less."
In our middle column, we feature an interview with Wells Fargo's new head of MMFs, Jeff Weaver. It reads, "When Dave Sylvester, the long-time head of money market funds at Wells Fargo, announced his retirement at the end of 2014, the reins were handed over to Jeff Weaver, who now wears two hats. Weaver, the head of Wells Capital Management's short-duration team, also become head of the money market fund team effective January 1, 2015. We sat down with him to get his thoughts on not just money funds, but on separate accounts and the short-duration bond fund space. He also discussed how Wells is evaluating its money fund lineup to prepare for the upcoming rule changes."
We asked him, "Will you make any lineup changes? Weaver: We remain committed to offering retail and institutional prime, government, and municipal funds -- particularly if that's what our clients want -- and we believe they do. Many of our clients are in a wait-and-see mode until that October 2016 deadline approaches. Right now, we're evaluating our product lineup. We're speaking with clients with the goal of developing product solutions that best meet their needs. Our client base is largely institutional -- 90% institutional versus 10% retail -- so that is always front of mind as we're making these changes. Once we finalize a plan of action, we will present it to our Funds' board. We will not make any announcements until the board has seen and approved those changes."
The article on "Deposits and FDIC 'Amalgamators'" says, "Zero yields and the expiration of unlimited FDIC insurance haven't stopped the growth of bank deposits over the past year or two. Deposits have increased by almost $500 billion in the year through Jan. 31, 2015, and they've increased by almost $1.6 trillion the past 3 years. Bank and thrift deposits combined have almost doubled since the financial crisis hit hardest in late 2008; they now total a massive $7.65 trillion." It adds, "We also discuss the continued rapid growth of FDIC insurance "amalgamators," who are in the business of breaking too-big-for-insurance deposits into smaller FDIC insured pieces (spreading them among a network of banks). This segment continues to grow via brokerage sweeps, and is starting to see growth from the institutional and corporate cash segment."
Crane Data's April MFI XLS, with March 31, 2015, data shows total assets decreasing in March, the third month in a row, down $20.9 billion to $2.576 trillion after falling $1.6 billion in February and $44.6 billion in January. Our broad Crane Money Fund Average 7-Day Yield and 30-Day Yield remained at 0.02%, while our Crane 100 Money Fund Index (the 100 largest taxable funds) stayed at 0.03% (7-day and 30-day). On a Gross Yield Basis (before expenses were taken out), funds averaged 0.14% (Crane MFA, same as last month) and 0.18% (Crane 100, up from 0.17%) on an annualized basis for both the 7-day and 30-day yield averages. Charged Expenses averaged 0.13% (unchanged) and 0.15% (up from 0.14%) for the two main taxable averages. The average WAMs for the Crane MFA and the Crane 100 were 41 and 43 days, respectively. The Crane MFA WAM was the same as last month while the Crane 100 WAM is down 1 day from the prior month. (See our Crane Index or craneindexes.xlsx history file for more on our averages.)