Kanjorski and the Money Market Funds: The Facts

With the Kanjorski Meme still spreading (see Ben Smith, Andrew Leonard, Moldbug, and more), I think I’m finally able to squash it with some hard figures: there never was a $500 billion outflow from any asset class in the space of a couple of hours or even weeks, and the Fed never shut down or froze any money-market accounts.

This is not the first time that Kanjorski has made these allegations. But first, it’s worth going through the timeline.

On September 15, Lehman Brothers failed. The Reserve fund — which was $64 billion that morning, and which had a substantial investment in Lehman debt — saw $10 billion of withdrawals that day. The following day, September 16, it saw another $10 billion of withdrawals; on September 17, when withdrawals had reached a total of about $40 billion, it announced that redemptions would take "as long as seven days"; as we all know, that was massively overoptimistic.

The news from The Reserve was gruesome, and total withdrawals from money-market funds reached $104 billion that day, according to Crane Data. Another data provider, ICI, says that as of the close of business on the 17th, money-market funds had a total of $3,549.3 billion, which was a fall of just $30.3 billion from their level a week previously.

The following day, September 18, was bad but not quite as bad, with withdrawals of $57 billion, according to Crane Data. By the 24th, according to ICI, the total was $3,456.2 billion — a drop of another $93.1 billion from the 17th.

On September 19, worried about outflows from money-market funds, the Treasury announced that, for a fee, it would guarantee — not freeze — eligible money-market mutual funds. But the details of the plan still weren’t clear as of September 21, when Treasury said it was "continuing to develop the specific details surrounding the temporary guaranty program".

Substantially all of the outflows came from institutional accounts: retail investors never panicked. If you look at the weekly data for bank savings deposits, including money market deposit accounts, they stood at $3,167.4 billion on the 15th, and rose to $3,191.4 billion on the 22nd.

So where does the $500 billion outflow number come from? Would you believe: the Sunday New York Post, which on September 21 published a story headlined "Almost Armageddon" featuring this paragraph:

According to traders, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, money market funds were inundated with $500 billion in sell orders prior to the opening [on Thursday]. The total money-market capitalization was roughly $4 trillion that morning.

Remember where we’re at here: the end of the longest week in financial-market history, when no one — traders, reporters, Congressmen, you name it — was getting much if any sleep. Simple errors can easily be made, numbers can get fuzzy, everything was moving very fast and confusingly.

In any case, three days later, on September 24, Kanjorski held a hearing on Capitol Hill with Treasury secretary Hank Paulson. Here’s what he said:

I was talking to someone, one of my friends on Wall Street today, asking him to verify the money market run. It was anonymously reported in some of the New York papers, and I think I have evidence of it in some of our conversations, whether it was with you or with other experts, that between 11:00 and 11:30 on Thursday last, the money markets in the United States were hit by a run that amounted to about $500 billion of $4 trillion in accounts and that as I understand it, it was essential for the Federal Reserve to pump $105 billion into the system and to suspend operations or the money market accounts of the country would have, in fact, failed.

One, you should tell us that.

Kanjorski is clearly fishing here: he’s talking about anonymous newspaper reports and vague "conversations" and anonymous Wall Street "friends", and basically asking Paulson to confirm his suspicions. Which, naturally, Paulson doesn’t do, because the suspicions weren’t actually true. That said, however, Paulson’s being-polite-to-the-Congressman answer doesn’t explicitly say that Kanjorski’s numbers are false.

After that, we didn’t here much more about this meme until Kanjorski resuscitated it on C-Span, this time citing the Federal Reserve as his data source, and beefing up the numbers for good measure:

On Thursday at about 11 o’clock in the morning the Federal Reserve noticed a tremendous drawdown of, uh, money market accounts in the United States to the tune of $550-billion was being drawn out in in a matter of an hour or two…

We were having an electronic run on the banks. They decided to close down the operation, to close down the money accounts. … If they had not done that, in their estimation, by 2 PM that afternoon $5.5-trillion would have been withdrawn and would have collapsed the U.S. economy and within 24 hours the world economy would have collapsed.

This is all, frankly, fiction, and it’s not clear where most of it came from, although maybe Kanjorski’s "friends" on Wall Street are the same people as Michael Gray’s sources at the New York Post. Thinking back to that crazy week it’s easy to get details wrong, especially when you’re speaking off the cuff on a call-in show. But let’s stop treating it as though there’s any substance to it. Please.

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