What is the real mutual fund scandal?

It’s not market timing, not according to Mark Hulbert. He writes:

Market timing, as the phrase has traditionally been used in the stock market, refers to shifting a portfolio from equities to cash in the hope of sidestepping a market decline, then moving back into the market in anticipation of a rally. There are many approaches to market timing; they vary according to the techniques used to forecast rallies and declines and in the frequency of the switching. Market timers’ track records also vary widely.

Strictly defined, market timing has little to do with the fund industry’s current troubles.

In part, late trading allows some shareholders to trade after the market close. But much of the real problem is — stale pricing:

Some mutual funds have been accused of allowing certain investors to take advantage of out-of-date securities prices used by funds in calculating their net asset values. Because those stale prices were sometimes too low or too high, investors who frequently switched into and out of these funds could realize substantial profits at the expense of other shareholders.

This stale-price arbitrage, as the practice is sometimes called, happens most often in international stock funds. When funds calculate their net asset values at 4 p.m., they generally use the prices at which their portfolio stocks traded most recently. For international funds, those prices can be several hours out of date.

Here is a related New York Times article, on Eric Zitzewitz, who is developing means of measuring asset values more correctly, to prevent stale pricing. The problem: fund managers themselves engage in the practice, and so they are reluctant to adopt these innovations. The solution?: Enforce current laws, already on the books.

See also my earlier post, on how much the mutual fund scandals cost investors.


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