Experts prescribe treatments to reverse the wearing effects of scandal
By Jim Connolly
The steady stream of mutual fund scandals in the last few months has taken a heavy toll on the confidence of investors and the advisors who guide them, not to mention the pressure on those funds that have been caught up in the swirl of unwelcome publicity. And if at times it seems like there is no end in sight, corrective actions are under way and more are being prescribed.
“The list gets longer each month,” says Robert Pozen, chairman of Massachusetts Financial Services Investment Services, the Boston unit of Sun Life Financial, Toronto. “I think this will run until the end of next year.”
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MFS itself settled market timing charges and charges of using brokerage commissions to pay for marketing and distribution of mutual funds with the Securities and Exchange Commission and state regulators without admitting or denying wrongdoing.
Customers did walk when the scope of problems became apparent, he says. In the case of MFS, there was a net $1 billion outflow between Oct. 1, 2003 and April 1, 2004, although the trend reversed a bit in first quarter, he says.
Outflows were not limited to MFS. Filings with the SEC indicate that other mutual fund complexes with well-publicized problems such as Putnam Investments, a Boston-based unit of Marsh & McLennan; and Janus Capital Group, Denver, also experienced outflows. In Putnams case, assets under management declined $14 billion from first to second quarter 2004, while Janus suffered a decline of $9.6 billion during the same time frame.
Among the steps that Pozen says MFS is taking to rectify past practices is paying an extra $20 million to $30 million in hard money rather than paying soft dollars for brokerage commissions. Those commissions had been used to acquire third-party research and market data services and to recognize fund sales. (See sidebar.)
Pozen says it is critical to resolve questions about the companys practices and move on. It is better to come clean through disclosure and action to resolve questions about the companys practices, he adds.
One effect of these scandals on the industry, according to Pozen, will be consolidation of funds. The industry, he predicts, will look like a barbell with niche players and large players. Middle tier players will be squeezed out because of the costs associated with complying with regulation, including the technology needed to comply with regulation, he explains.
“It is only something that time and good behavior will heal,” says Thomas Lauerman, a partner with Foley & Lardners Washington office, of the effects of the scandals. The proposals put forth by the SEC will help achieve that healing, he continues.
Mutual fund companies need to be more proactive in prohibiting market timing and in refining fair value pricing procedures that ensure that funds fairly value their portfolio of securities, he says.
Lauerman says he believes that with improved technology, valuing fund portfolios will continue to become more sophisticated.