Buck-Breaking and Lawsuit-Shaking

The Times has a worthy story this morning looking at a bizarre move by the Reserve Primary Fund to protect itself from lawsuits.

Reserve is the money-market fund that “broke the buck” in September after its Lehman assets were devalued and investors started withdrawing money. Breaking the buck means that investors don’t get all their deposits back, and since money-market funds are supposed to be as safe as cash, that’s a no-no (the paper says it’s only ever happened once before).

The news is that Reserve has told investors that they might get 98.5 cents on the dollar back as long as they fall in line and don’t sue it.

But if they continue to wage legal battles against the fund and its managers, the company will use investors’ own money to defend itself against their accusations of mismanagement and deception.

And there are already lawsuits filed against it, including an insider-trading one filed by Ameriprise, which is hardly some crank:

One of the most potentially damaging claims facing the fund is pending in federal court in Minneapolis, where Ameriprise Financial, hundreds of thousands of whose customers were caught in the fund, is accusing the fund managers of tipping some investors in advance that the fund was in danger of breaking the buck.

“The Reserve’s plan is ingenious,” said Harvey J. Wolkoff, a lawyer with Ropes & Gray in Boston who is handling that case for Ameriprise. “Their plan is that their own investors reimburse them for their wrongdoing.”

I don’t know if Reserve is guilty of anything, but they sure could be. So it’s good that the NYT is publicizing this scheme, which if it’s not illegal, ought to be.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.