Not All Certificates of Deposit Are Plain Vanilla -- or Safe

by Ron Lieber

It was bad enough when big banks started going under. Then, money market funds became suspect. But now, even the humble certificate of deposit has become mired in scandal.

Last week, the Securities and Exchange Commission accused a Texas financier named Robert Allen Stanford of fraud. Investigators allege that the scheme revolved in large part around the sale of about $8 billion of suspiciously high-yielding C.D.’s through Stanford International Bank.

These C.D.’s were not insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. So once again, we’re faced with images of forlorn people trying and failing to extract their life savings.

There’s some question as to whether Stanford ought to have been using the phrase “certificate of deposit.” Most investors who hear “C.D.” immediately assume that it’s safe.

Faulty terminology or not, it’s a bad time for C.D.’s to get a black eye, given that growing numbers of people are looking for secure investments as stocks approach their bear market lows. So now that C.D.’s have been sullied, it makes sense to take a step back and review the basic product as well as other, more exotic C.D.’s that are being offered at banks, brokerage firms and elsewhere.

BASIC C.D.’S When you buy a C.D. you hand over a pile of money to a bank and agree to keep it there for a certain period of time. In return for the certainty that it can use your funds for that long, the bank pays you interest, usually more interest than it would pay on a normal checking or savings account. Investments in C.D.’s are covered by the F.D.I.C., which currently offers insurance of up to $250,000 per person per bank. Additional coverage may be available depending on how you set up your accounts.

That $250,000 figure will fall to $100,000 for some types of accounts at the end of the year absent any new governmental action, so long-term C.D. investors need to keep that in mind.

There are plenty of places to shop for the best C.D. rates. is one useful site, while MoneyAisle allows banks to compete for your business in an auction on the Web. Often, the banks offering the best rates are small banks you won’t have heard of or large banks that may be somewhat troubled.

As long as you don’t invest more than the F.D.I.C. limits, you don’t need to worry about losing your money. If the bank that issues your C.D. fails, however, another bank may end up with the failed bank’s deposits and has the right to lower your C.D. rate.

With any C.D., including the more complicated ones I outline below, there are a number of questions you should ask about the terms. Is the interest rate fixed? How long is the term? Is it callable, meaning the bank can give your money back to you before the term is up if it wants to? What sort of penalties exist if you need to take money out before the term is up? If the penalties are large enough, you could end up losing principal if you unexpectedly need the funds early.

You also want to check to see how the interest will be paid. Retirees may want a check, while others may want the money reinvested in the C.D. Also, how often does the bank pay out the interest? And will the bank try to automatically roll the money into a new C.D. when the term is up? Are there any commissions?

BROKERED C.D.’S These are C.D.’s sold by brokerage firms, both large investment firms like Charles Schwab and small operations that maintain Web sites or try to cold-call you. They generally pool money from investors and then invest it in C.D.’s from F.D.I.C.-insured banks that the brokers find on their own. Sometimes, the banks are willing to pay better rates on brokered C.D.’s if the brokerage firm can bring a large enough pile of money to the bank.

One advantage here, according to RenĂ© Kim, a senior vice president of Charles Schwab, is that you can keep multiple C.D.’s of different maturities in one account. And if you have a lot of money to put to work, you can place it with different banks to stay under the F.D.I.C. limits. Just be sure that the broker doesn’t place it with a bank where you already have other accounts, if the new money would put you over the F.D.I.C. limits.

Brokerage firms may tell you that there are no fees for early withdrawal of a brokered C.D. The S.E.C. warns, however, that if you want to get your money out early, your broker may need to try to sell your portion of the C.D. on a secondary market. You may not be able to sell it for an amount that will allow you to get all of your principal back.

INDEXED C.D.’S These C.D.’s, also known as market-linked C.D.’s, generally guarantee that you’ll get your original investment back. They also let you share in the gain of a stock market index, like the Dow Jones industrial average or the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index. If stocks are up during the term of your C.D., you’ll make some money. If not, you’ll still get your initial investment back, though inflation may have eroded its value.

While this downside protection and upside participation may be tempting at a time like this, these C.D.’s can be complicated. (They’re also a bit scarce at the moment, since stock market volatility makes it more expensive for banks to offer them.) Your return will depend on how the issuer of the C.D. calculates the average return on the index. So ask to see an example.

Also, the bank that offers the C.D. may not credit any of the money you earn until the end of the C.D.’s term, even though you still have to pay taxes each year on your interest.

Finally, while your initial investment may have F.D.I.C. protection, any gain during the term of the C.D. may not be covered if the bank goes under before the C.D.’s term is up, depending on how the interest is calculated and credited. Again, ask about this in advance. Also, don’t assume that your investment comes with F.D.I.C. insurance, because there are similar-sounding investments that may not.

FOREIGN CURRENCY C.D.’S Here, you’re using American dollars to make a bet. At EverBank, which offers many foreign currency C.D.’s, you earn interest in the currency that you choose and can earn even more money if it appreciates against the dollar. If it moves in the opposite direction, however, you can lose not just your interest but some of the principal, too.

While the F.D.I.C. does insure the principal here, EverBank notes that the coverage is only for failure of the institution, not for fluctuation in currency prices. “Please only invest with money that you can afford to risk, and as part of a broadly diversified investment strategy,” its disclosure says.

The bank might as well say that you should only invest what you can afford to lose, which is not how most people normally think about C.D.’s.

So if you’re trying to stay safe, consider a plain, old-fashioned C.D. instead. And don’t ever assume, as some of the Stanford investors may have done, that F.D.I.C. insurance is automatically part of the C.D. package.