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October 2009


It’s not every day that I find a bank account offering more than 2% APY, but as of October 30, 2009, I’ve discovered one thanks to a reader. “Ski Naut” contacted me yesterday to ask about SFGI Direct’s offer of 2.25% APY. I had not heard of the bank, so I looked into it.

SFGI Direct is the online banking division of Summit Community Bank, based in Moorefield, West Virginia. Deposits at Summit and SFGI Direct are covered by the FDIC as you would expect for any legitimate bank in the United States. To open the online savings account at SFGI Direct, customers will need to provide the typical personal information including Social Security number and employment information. The account requires a $500 minimum balance and initial funding deposits are limited to a maximum of $25,000.

For some people, SFGI Direct may be one of the fastest bank account opening processes from application to use. Like a small number of other banks, SFGI Direct allows “Instant Verification.” Most banks still offer only “Micro-Deposit Verification,” or the even more antiquated “Check Verification.” This means that after your application for opening an account is approved, if you link your new SFGI Direct account to an outside bank that supports this feature, rather than waiting two to three days for Micro-Deposit Verification, you can provide your account access details for the linked account. SFGI Direct will securely and privately confirm your account details with the external bank and allow you to immediately initiate your initial funding deposit.

SFGI DirectI attempted to use the Instant Verification option to fund a new SFGI Direct account from ING Direct. Unfortunately, ING Direct’s verification process requires the customer to choose ten identifying questions. I don’t believe I set up ten questions and answers at ING Direct initially, so I was relegated to the slower Micro-Deposit Verification. After the weekend, I will be able to confirm my ownership of my linked account and initiate my funding transfer.

With this generous interest rate in comparison to other savings accounts, I have added SFGI Direct to the list of high-yield savings and checking account interest rates. You can SFGI Direct here.

Update: New customers are not currently welcome at SFGI Direct. As of Friday, November 6, the bank has closed its online application and presented this message on their website:

On Friday, November 6th SFGI Direct will again remove the “Apply Now” button from our website. As many of you noticed in July we removed the “Apply Now” button for approximately 2 months. It is our philosophy to deliver a competitive product to our clients.

SFGI Direct has chosen a strategy to slow down account growth by limiting the application process for new clients instead of dramatically cutting the rates on loyal customers.

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Peer-to-peer lending institution Prosper is offering a $50 bonus for new lenders who sign up for for the service and bid on two loans. Peer-to-peer lending is an interesting way for people to qualify for loans and to lend money to others. In an economy where savings account interest rates are under 3% or 2%, it’s tempting to put cash to better use through these direct loans. There is a possibility to earn much more than you would by putting cash in a savings account as long as loans are chosen carefully and you’re willing to accept risk.

There is something appealing about working outside the banking system. Peer-to-peer lending takes a specific power of the financial industry and puts in the hands of individuals.

I tried Prosper a few years ago. A friend of mine was looking to consolidate his credit card balances, but was looking for a better option that putting several thousand dollars onto one high-interest card. His plan was to apply for a loan on Prosper and use the funds to pay off his credit cards. He would then only need to worry about one payment each month with a lower total payment and a lower interest rate than what he would likely get with a credit card.

A Great New Investment OpportunityWhen he asked me about Propser, I offered to help him out by bidding to provide a portion of the funding for the loan. The idea of being an investor appealed to me, but unfortunately, the state of Texas prevented him from participating on Prosper at that time. It is my understanding that he would qualify only for an interest rate higher than allowed by the state.

My adventures with Prosper ended before they began. And I won’t be able to get started. As I began to research investing in a portfolio of loans at Prosper and bidding on individual loans, I was greeted by this message:

Unfortunately, at this time lenders in New Jersey are not able to bid or transfer money to Prosper. If you have portfolio plans, they have been paused. You may transfer money out of your Prosper account as they become available from loan payments.

If you reside in a state where Prosper is allowed to do business, consider signing up for an account and qualifying for the $50 bonus. What is your experience with Prosper?

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Through today, GMAC has received government bailout funds totaling $12.5 billion. The company is asking the Obama administration for $5.6 billion more. One might say that in a true democracy, GMAC would need to ask permission from each taxpayer whose funds would go towards shoring up the company’s balance sheet, a move that would make GMAC appear more stable on paper. But we have a representative democracy, where Congress makes decisions that occasionally reflect the will of the members’ constituents.

GMAC might receive their third bailout. Industry analysts agree that the failure of GMAC would have a devastating ripple effect throughout the rest of the economy. If GMAC fails, so would the companies who depend on GMAC to offer loans to customers, General Motors and Chrysler. The failure of these companies in turn would result in the failures of suppliers and dealers. The government has already pumped so much taxpayer money into these companies that their failure would signal a broader failure of the entire bailout process. Also, GMAC’s total bailout is still less than the financial injections Citigroup and Bank of America have received.

In personal finance, an additional bailout for a failing company would be similar to throwing good money after bad. For example, if one makes a poor purchasing decision while buying a car, costly repairs might be necessary. Rather than cutting the losses and getting rid of the car, one might continue putting money into the black hole, and after time, the money that you spent on the purchase and repairs could have purchased a nicer car that ran without problems.

There is no guarantee that another bailout will save GMAC in the long run.

GMAC is the parent company of Ally Bank, formerly known as GMAC Bank, an online bank that has drawn in more customers with a savvy advertising campaign and high interest rates. The American Bankers Association forced the FDIC to request Ally Bank to lower its rates because other banks couldn’t compete with Ally’s new strength acquired with the help of taxpayers.

If GMAC were to fail, Ally Bank depositors should be safe as long as they have stayed within FDIC’s coverage limits.

I think it may be time to start allowing companies like GMAC, those who require funding from taxpayers to improve their balance sheets and who have little prospect for paying taxpayers back, to fail. There are signs the economy is recovering. Maybe it is time to let the market and capitalism work itself out. Those companies who remained conservative will survive and those who chased bad loans and complex derivatives without sufficiently considering risk will step aside.

Do you think GMAC should receive another bailout?

Photo credit: jim.greenhill
3rd Rescue Considered for GMAC, Eric Dash, New York Times, October 28, 2009

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Update: Capital One has purchased ING Direct.

Here in the Untied States, ING Direct, a banking arm of the large financial company ING Group from the Netherlands, offers more than just high-yield online savings accounts. The bank also offers investments and mortgages, and some of the latter may have been too risky, like those sold and packaged into securities by domestic banks.

ING Group received a taxpayer bailout of €10 billion ($14.9 billion) and the European Commission is forcing the financial company to restructure in order to repay this loan. Part of this deal involves taking ING’s insurance companies public and selling the United States’ ING Direct by 2013.

The effect of this sale remains to be seen. Some time between today and the end of 2013, ING Direct will be owned by another company. This bank was one of the first to operate without any brick-and-mortar branches and the first to be an unmitigated success. When I first started paying attention to my finances at the start of this decade, the recommendations for ING Direct flowed from every information channel. With the highest interest rates in the savings account business, unusually capable customer service, and a slick and functional website, the bank was a favorite among the die-hard personal finance fans at the Motley Fool discussion boards.

More recently, ING Direct has moved from excellent to very good. I still recommend this bank to people who want a hassle-free experience, but their rates are no longer as competitive and their electronic checking account is not the best in class. For those with more money to put in savings, those who would benefit from a higher interest rate, I usually offer additional options.

ING Direct’s corporate message in response to those customers concerned about recent news of the impending sale is that your money is safe. I don’t think safety is the real concern. Accounts at the bank are insured by the FDIC, so even if the bank fails safety isn’t a problem. These are the questions you should have right now:

  • Who will purchase the bank and will ING Direct’s core values change?
  • If the core values change, will they be for the better (more competitive interest rates, for example) or for the worse (scaled back operations and customer service, for example)?
  • What new account fees will be introduced?
  • ING Direct employs about 1,200 in Delaware and another thousand more across the country. Will they have jobs and for how long?

These questions will not be answered for some time.

I do not see the announcement of this sale as a reason to move money out of ING Direct now. I will be watching developments closely, however. With the bulk of my savings in ING Direct, I am very sensitive to the fact that they do not offer the highest interest rate available. For years, the bank has counted on customers like me: those who first deposited when the interest rates were high and competitive and who have stayed around as other banks consistently offer higher rates. But I do not owe my loyalty to a company and will be quick to shop around if I am no longer getting a good deal considering cost, return, and service.

Photo credit: diaper
ING to sell Delaware-based bank in [sic] 2013, Eric Ruth, The News Journal, October 27, 2009
Post-Bailout Blues as Europe Orders ING Group to Sell 2 Units, Eric Dash, New York Times, October 26, 2009

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Hulu and the Subscription Model

by Smithee

This is an editorial by Smithee and a plea for your help in shaping the future of entertainment. At our house, we enjoy some Hulu programming on occasion. Even though during the recent DVR years I’ve become accustomed to skipping commercials, I don’t mind them on Hulu, for these reasons: I’ve only seen one per ... Continue reading this article…

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List of Failed Banks, Updated April 9, 2010

by Luke Landes

Over 100 banks failed in 2009. Most of these are smaller regional banks who, in order to compete with larger banks, offered risky loans and are now facing customer defaults. Larger banks were offered government bailouts to prevent failure, but these smaller banks whose failures are not seen as major risks to the economy are ... Continue reading this article…

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Seven Zen Principles to Guide Your Money and Your Life

by Luke Landes

A few years ago, I visited the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Japanese gardens are designed precisely to appear natural, resulting in an interesting collision between nature and man. There is a set of principles or aesthetics that guide the creation of Japanese gardens, including the dry gardens commonly called ... Continue reading this article…

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Podcast 27: Man Vs. Debt and Frugal Travel

by Luke Landes

The Consumerism Commentary Podcast has now completed six months of broadcasts without missing one week. This is as good a place as any to declare the “First Season” of the podcast complete and begin the “Second Season.” In the premiere of Season 2, Tom Dziubek and Flexo speak with Adam Baker, the creator of the ... Continue reading this article…

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Net Neutrality Simplified

by Smithee

Depending on how you get your news, the topic of network neutrality can seem boring, or confusing, or both. Possibly you haven’t yet heard about it, or you’ve already formed an opinion. The reports I see are too often complicated, lacking reasoned arguments and full of hyperbolic guesses as to what the future might hold. ... Continue reading this article…

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Pay Czar Ordering Bailed Out Companies to Reduce Pay

by Luke Landes

The executives of these companies had to see this coming. When a company is “too big to fail,” it becomes a public institution in senses of the phrase but the most literal. And for a number of banks and other financial companies in the past year, the public has become a partial owner thanks to ... Continue reading this article…

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Investor Psychology: Why We Fail to Make Good Financial Decisions

by Luke Landes

Investors make better decisions when they separate emotions from the thought process, but it’s practically impossible to achieve the goal in perfection. Regardless of how hard one tries, emotions will always be present. The best an investor, or anyone who makes decisions about finances, can achieve is awareness of the ways psychology prevents optimal decision ... Continue reading this article…

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Senator Dodd Going Ahead With Overdraft Legislation

by Smithee

We told you last month about banks deciding to let customers opt out of overdraft fees, first announced by Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase, and then the next day by Wells Fargo (and Wachovia, which it owns). These big banks made the changes very soon after lawmakers announced an intention to try to ... Continue reading this article…

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New Graduates Facing Unemployment May Never Reach Income Potential

by Luke Landes

The unemployment rate for young workers between the ages of 16 and 23 is 18 percent, and that is an increase of five points from a year ago. That age group includes high school drop-outs as well as college graduates, and for these people the future looks bleak. Adults are taking the minimum-wage jobs teenagers might ... Continue reading this article…

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ING Direct Offers “Added Value” Certificate of Deposit

by Luke Landes

In an effort to attract more new deposits, ING Direct is offering a new savings product with a high interest rate, the “Added Value” certificate of deposit (CD). If you are willing to deposit new money to ING Direct and let the bank hold that money for one year without any withdrawals, ING Direct will ... Continue reading this article…

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Podcast 26: Mark Frauenfelder, Creator of Boing Boing

by Luke Landes

Tom Dziubek and Flexo speak with Mark Frauenfelder, the creator of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of the MAKE magazine. Frauenfelder also writes for Credit.com, and within this interview he shares details about some of this website’s new services including the Credit Report Card (reviewed here). Frauenfelder is a proponent of the do-it-yourself (DIY) lifestyle, ... Continue reading this article…

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Google Editions: E-Books From Anywhere

by Smithee

In addition to Sony’s and Amazon’s electronic bookstores (about 100,000 and 330,000 titles available, respectively), booksellers now have another huge option for getting their books into our hands: Google Editions, which will launch next year with between 400,000 and 600,000 titles. Not necessarily a store or a device Google Editions is built on top of ... Continue reading this article…

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Quicken 2010 Review and Giveaway

by Luke Landes

Are you looking for the latest version of Quicken? Here is my review of the newest version, Quicken 2012. Downloads of Quicken 2012 are available today. Note: This is a long article containing an in-depth review of the new version of Quicken. If you are just interested in the giveaway of Quicken 2010 Deluxe, scroll ... Continue reading this article…

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How to Create Your Own Extended Warranty

by Luke Landes

In my article the other day about the deal I got on a new computer despite my immediate need, I neglected to mention something important: I refused the extended warranty that the salesperson offered numerous times. Any extended warranty is almost always a bad deal. When I was a teenager, I had a short-lived job ... Continue reading this article…

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Bank of America Adding Annual Fees to Credit Cards

by Luke Landes

With the current and upcoming changes in the credit card industry due to the Credit CARD Act and other regulations put in place by the Federal Reserve, banks and credit issuers are maneuvering as much as possible to be in a good position to continue making money off their customers. Public corporations have responsibility to ... Continue reading this article…

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Ten Things to Do With $1,000 Right Now

by Luke Landes

Mention to your friend that you suddenly received an unexpected $1,000 and I would be willing to bet he could come up with several suggestions for you. Most of those suggestions will likely involve handing the money over to him. My first suggestion is to refrain from telling your friend when you have $1,000 more ... Continue reading this article…

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