What Is an Auction Rate Security (ARS)?

An auction rate security (ARS) is a type of variable-rate debt security that is sold through a Dutch auction. An ARS is generally either a bond with a long-term maturity of 20 to 30 years or preferred shares of stock issued by a closed-end fund. The ARS is sold at an interest rate that will clear the market at the lowest yield possible. This ensures that all bidders on an ARS receive the same yield on the debt issue. The interest rate on an ARS is reset periodically through additional auctions, typically every seven, 14, 28, or 35 days.

During the global financial crisis of 2008, the ARS market failed when the auctions could not attract enough bidders to establish a clearing rate. This meant many investors were left holding investments with long-term maturities they could not sell.

$330 billion

The estimated amount of money invested in auction rate securities before the market collapsed in 2008.

Key Takeaways

  • An auction rate security (ARS) is a type of variable-rate investment that is generally either a bond with a long-term maturity or preferred shares of stock.
  • The interest rate on an ARS typically resets every seven, 14, 28, or 35 days through a Dutch auction.
  • A Dutch auction is a public auction in which investors place bids for the amount of the offering they are willing to buy and the price they are willing to pay.
  • The ARS market collapsed during the global financial crisis of 2008, leaving tens of thousands of investors holding long-term investments they could not sell.

Understanding Auction Rate Securities (ARS)

Municipal and corporate issuers seeking to raise debt at a low cost and looking for the flexibility of variable rates can go the route of auction rate securities (ARS). Auction rate securities are medium- to long-term debt issues which have their interest rates determined through a Dutch auction process. In a way, an ARS acts as if it were a shorter-term issue since interest rates are reset approximately every month. A Dutch auction is a public offering auction structure in which the price of the offering is set after taking in all bids and determining the highest price at which the total offering can be sold.

Before the ARS Auction

Auctions for ARS are held every seven, 14, 28, or 35 days, at which time the rates are reset. Prior to the auction, brokers discuss the range of possible ARS rates with their clients. This discussion, referred to as "price talk", gives clients a basis for probable rates, but investors are free to submit bids outside of this range.

Investors enter a competitive bidding process by submitting bids that specify the number of shares, in denominations of $25,000, that they are willing to purchase and the lowest interest rate that they would be willing to accept from the bond.

Bids are accepted until the deadline after which the auction agent calculates the clearing rate based on the submitted bids. The clearing rate is the interest rate that will be paid on the securities until the next auction.

After the ARS Auction

If the investor’s bid rate is less than the clearing rate, the investor will receive all or a part of their desired bid. Bids placed above the clearing rate will not be filled. Coupons are paid shortly after each auction period ends and the yield is settled every quarter. Investors are drawn to these securities due to high investment-grade ratings in addition to the fact that they are exempt from federal, state, and local taxes. ARS also provides a slightly higher after-tax yield than money market instruments due to their complexity and increase in risk.

The Collapse of the ARS Market

In Feb. 2008, the ARS market failed when the four main investment banks in the market—Citigroup, UBS AG, Morgan Stanley, and Merrill Lynch—declined to act as bidders of last resort due to liquidity concerns. Brokers who sold these securities on behalf of issuers led buyers to believe they were liquid.

When the downside of ARS came to light, the auctions attracted too few bidders to establish a clearing rate, resulting in the inability of ARS holders to sell their long-term investments which had turned illiquid. In effect, a market for auction-rate securities has ceased to exist.

After the collapse of the ARS market, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and state attorney generals stepped in to negotiate settlements with major broker-dealers on behalf of investors. Large financial institutions—including Bank of America and Citigroup—were ordered to pay back approximately $50 billion to investors who said the firms had not fully disclosed to them the risks of ARS investments.