Amid all the worries about bank guarantees and the freezing of mortgage funds by a string of promoters, large and small, there’s a solution at hand.

Why don’t the likes of AXA, Colonial (the Commonwealth Bank) and Perpetual, plus the other 15 to 20 groups that have rushed to freeze redemptions from the funds do the right thing and organise funding to allow people to take their money and run to the banks for safety?

The funds could organise loans from their parent organisations, or banks, fully secured over the mortgages, or over the cashflow in the funds. None of the depositors have any security over the mortgages or other assets of the funds: the money is essentially unsecured. The mortgages the depositors have financed are in turn fully secured over the property deals they are financing (or we hope they are).

By raising funds that way depositors would be assured that there would be money there to meet their demands. You’d likely find that the pace of redemptions would slow with that reassurance. In fact, there would not only be enough money to meet the various “runs”, but the fund promoters and their parent companies would be seen to be doing the right thing by investors, and proving to sceptics that this part of the managed funds business can look after its own.

After all, if the valuations of the mortgage funds are good and solid, the promoters and the parents (and banks) should have no trouble lending. The money would be recovered when the mortgages are discharged and the underlying or direct investments are sold. In the meantime there’s a cash flow problem and a hit to earnings, but who said this business was a one way street?

But it seems this is too hard for some of the banks and others who have gone into managed funds, particularly the likes of GPT and Mirvac who discarded the old property trust/investor model to become a promoter and retailer of investment funds. Their mantra was Funds Under Management (or FUM), a figure followed religiously by analysts at brokers like Macquarie, Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs JBWere and the like. All of them cared little about the underlying worth of this financial engineering and more about outcomes as measured by things like FUM.

GPT, Mirvac and many of their peers are broke and can’t organise a morning coffee run at the moment, let alone a bailout, so they couldn’t join an industry funding scheme except by being funded by a more powerful group, like a bank.

It is a test of how much the various promoters and parents believe in the value of their managed funds, if they are willing to put their hands in their own pockets (and those of their shareholders) to help their investors out of their predicament.

In the current case, none are, which raises questions about the underlying value of these property investments in this febrile investment climate.

So, the absence of any help from the promoters and loans or financial support from parents really an admission that, 1) the funds assets contain dodgy valuated assets that might not get 100 cents in the dollar, even in a good market, let alone the present fraught set of circumstances, and 2) the absence of any attempt to raise money to pay out investor funds seems to be a signal that the promoters and their parents won’t standby their funds?

If that’s the case, are the product disclosure statements accurate, do they fully reflect this situation and have the investors been sold a damaged bit of trash?

That raises the question of the real current values of the mortgage funds: is there any surplus, or are all the funds really taking a battering from declining commercial property values in Australia as the likes of MFS, City Pacific, Becton, Mirvac, GPT, Allco, Babcock and Brown, Lend Lease, Valad and Centro see their property investments tank as no one wants to buy?

Collectively these groups have possibly $20 billion worth of property on the market (if there were real buyers) , but no one is dealing. Weakness in big CBD and retail commercial property values spillover into the values of other commercial property, such as pubs, clubs, industrial property and even residential, especially home units and apartments.

It would seem the managed funds industry, both in the finance sector and property, are either unwilling or just unable to do anything except join the likes of the car industry, trade unions and big polluters in demanding a place at the Federal Government’s funding trough.

Before the Federal Government puts its hands in our pockets to bail out a bunch of yield hungry investors who failed to inform themselves of the drawbacks of investing in mortgage and property related funds (like all managed funds), there has to be some sort of accounting or auditing done to make sure there are no rorts or bailouts of promoters or parents courtesy of the Federal Government and taxpayers.

If that’s all OK then the finance can be done through the Reserve Bank buying mortgages, or better still, a third party company set up to be the conduit for the funding. The security would be a floating charge over a selection of prize assets, a collection of Australian Government securities, or some sort of letter of comfort signed by the head of the parent. In Colonial’s case by Ralph Norris, CEO of the CBA, and his chairman. If there was any loss for the Government and taxpayers, then the parent (such as the CBA, AXA or Perpetual) would put up the money and Messrs Norris and other CEO’s would help, or lose their jobs.

There is in fact a dirty little secret in these funds that they won’t fess up to — the mortgages these funds invest in are of lesser quality than ordinary home mortgages. The banks and others just won’t own up to that fact to their investors, unless they are pressed.

If we are going to bail these funds out, then it’s got to be done in a way that sheets home a bit of accountability, and the investors who remained in the funds should get some sort of loyalty yield, (those who hadn’t tried to redeem their money) and those who fled take a haircut if they return their funds within two years.

And finally a small bit of good news from the banking sector. Shareholders in Bendigo and Adelaide Bank were told at yesterday’s annual meeting that they had suffered some significant losses as the Adelaide Bank ran down its stock margin lending business this year.

Chairman, Robert Johanson told the meeting:

Some parts of the business have had to deal with a lot of change. For example our margin lending book declined from about $5 billion to $3 billion in line with the decline in share market prices. “In all that we have incurred $4 million in losses which is a regrettable but tiny amount.

Customers obviously lost, but we haven’t heard them or Bendigo Bank putting their hands out asking for help from Canberra, so why the likes of AXA, Macquarie, the CBA’s Colonial and Perpetual (whose shareholders meet in Sydney today).

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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