Dealing With Negative Returns In VA Money Market Accounts
I never thought Id see a time where money market accounts were making headlines. Some of you have been around long enough to remember in the late 1970s when money market accounts were getting some headlines due to extraordinary interest rates, 15% and higher. But thats not the type of headline Im referring to here. Im referring to headlines about money market funds actually having negative returns. Yes, returns less than zero.
Ive read a few articles recently in the popular press about this phenomenon. One concentrated on money market subaccounts inside variable annuities and another one concentrated on money market mutual funds.
Ill focus here on the money market subaccounts inside VAs. That does not mean that the story of negative returns of money market funds is less interesting, its just that its far less prevalent since there are no mortality and expense (M&E) fees and fund companies have shown a propensity toward lowering management fees to keep the returns positive.
I also want to differentiate this discussion from the “break-the-buck” money market issue where the value of the account drops below the seemingly impervious $1.00 level due to credit or duration problems. Again, its not that this isnt interesting, its just that this is not a very prevalent issue. (Although it is worth noting that the ultimate result of this problem is similar to that of a negative return, i.e., the account holder loses money in the money market account.)
Okay, back to the issue– negative returns in VA money market accounts. Why is this happening and what can be done about it?
Short-term interest rates are at historic lows, with many short-term instruments yielding 1% or less. Six months T-Bills are currently yielding 1.23%. The average money market fund is yielding 0.73%. Now, when you take on M&E charges (typically 1.40%) you can see why VA money market funds are yielding in negative territory.
There are really two things that can be done about this. One would be for the money manager, who manages the account, to reduce fees, much as they would in a mutual fund. This is unlikely to occur, however, as subaccount managers usually have somewhat less control and less incentive to do so. After all, their account holder is the insurer. Which leads into the second alternative, the insurer could cut its M&E fees.
There is a strong argument that the insurers shouldnt even be charging any mortality fees on a money market account, since the probability of loss is so small. There are actually two flaws in this argument. First is that depending on product design, much of the M&E is not for mortality, but for expenses (including commission). Therefore, as long as the expenses of operating the annuity and paying commission are present, the M&E must be charged.