Bruce Bent Sr. took the stand Thursday afternoon in a New York City courtroom, defending his actions during the 2008 financial crisis as his $62 billion Reserve Primary Fund—the world’s first money market mutual fund—imploded after making an unfortunate bet on the debt of Lehman Brothers Holdings, the Wall Street Journal reports.
The trial of the 75-year-old Bent Sr. and his son, Bruce Bent, II, began Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. It stems from a 2009 civil suit filed by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that alleged the pair lied to investors, fund trustees and regulators during the crisis. The Bents have denied the allegations.
In 1970, Bent Sr. and Henry B.R. Brown created the Reserve Fund and along with it the modern money market fund industry, which now holds more than $3 trillion in assets for tens of millions of investors. The idea behind the early money market fund was simple—above all else, provide investors with certain liquidity and safety for their money.
During the 2008 crisis, the usually conservative Reserve Primary fund bought about $785 million worth of Lehman’s debt. While the investment only represented about 1% of the fund’s assets, it proved disastrous when Lehman filed for bankruptcy on Sept. 15, 2008. Upon learning the Lehman news, investors pulled out $16 billion from the fund, forcing it to “break the buck” by falling under the $1 per share net asset value that money market funds try to maintain.
Indeed, during the Bents’ trial, Nancy Brown, the SEC’s lawyer, repeatedly compared the run on the fund to the bank run central to the plot of the 1946 Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life.
When the panic and losses at the Reserve Primary fund became evident, the federal government was forced to intervene and eventually guarantee a backstop for all money market funds. Interestingly, the Bents’ trail begins as both the SEC and the U.S. Financial Stability Oversight Council are examining whether to reform the money-market fund industry as a result of the collapse of the Reserve Primary.
Central to the SEC’s case against the Bents are charges that the pair never planned to inject more money into the fund to stabilize it, even though that was what they were telling investors and regulators at the time. Throughout much of Bent Sr.’s four-hour testimony on the stand on Thursday, the SEC questioned him about his statements to the fund trustees and investors.
In his defense, Bent Sr. said he was very concerned about the global impact of the Lehman bankruptcy and that he was trying to raise $100 million in new money to keep the fund afloat. He added that he had told his son to contact the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank of New York about the situation.
The SEC lawyer then questioned Bent Sr. as to why didn’t tell fund trustees about the call during an emergency meeting Sept. 15, or why he failed to convey his general concern about the effect of Lehman's bankruptcy on the fund.
Bent Sr. also said he did not approve an investor newsletter sent out later in the day on Sept. 15 that assured investors the Bents intended to support the fund.
Bent Sr. is expected to continue testifying today, and his son, Bent II, also is expected to take the stand. The trial is expected to last three w