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Auction Rate Nightmare

In SmartMoney’s May 2008 issue, James B. Stewart writes an insightful article regarding auction rate preferred shares (ARPS).  Mr. Stewart calls on Wall Street to “do the right thing” and redeem investors positions.

ARPS are shares in closed-end mutual funds that own various kinds of triple A-rated bonds.  These shares were sold as “cash equivalents” to investors concerned with liquidity and preservation of capital.  Brokers told investors that these investments offered little or no risk because rates were set at regualr auctions, often every seven days.  However, due to the ongoing credit crisis, these auctions began failing in February.

At that time, Goldman Sachs and Citigroup stopped bidding in these auctions.  Other Wall Street firms soon followed suit.  The result was an evaporation of liquidity.

Now thousands of investors in the $330 billion auction rate securities market are left holding investments that were sold as safe, cash equivalents.  Three months into this crisis and many auctions remain frozen.

Mr. Stewart asks that Wall Street step up and take care of its customers.  But to date, Wall Street has refused to do so.  Many firms have offered their valued clients loans to cover any liquidity concerns, but none are redeeming these shares at par.  As Mr. Stewart points out, there is somehting wrong with the way Wall Street has chosen to handle this issue.

Clearly brokerage firms did not appropriately represent these products.  Although historically ARPS have performed similar to money markets, they are not money markets.  There are risks with auction rate securities (as many investors have now become aware).  Wall Street knew these risks existed. 

Should these auctions remain frozen and Wall Street not step up and redeem investors’ shares, the only recourse for aggreived investors will be filing claims for their losses.  If past actions of Wall Street are any indication, it appears that many investors will have no choice but file claims to recover their funds.  Funds that were supposed to be safe and liquid.  

Quoting Mr. Stewart, leave it to Wall Street to “turn a plain-vanilla product into a nightmare for investors.”          

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