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Personal Finance Blog By MoneyRates - October 2011

Pessimism may be good for savings accounts

September 26, 2011

| MoneyRates.com Senior Financial Analyst, CFA

A recent study indicates that younger investors are especially concerned about their financial futures. Could this pessimism actually be a good sign for the future course of retirement saving?

Concerns higher among younger investors

The study in question was conducted by the Spectrem Group and compared concern levels of the general population with those of people aged 54 or younger--that is, 10 or more years away from retirement age.

The precentage of respondents who said they were worried about a particular aspect of their financial futures was higher in the younger age group for each of the five categories surveyed. The areas of concern people were asked about were rising interest rates, losing a job, financing education, getting adequate financial advice, and meeting short-term obligations.

Good news/bad news explanations

Why are people with more time until retirement especially worried? Well, you could put a positive or a negative spin on this.

The positive spin would be that younger people have been taught a valuable lesson by the financial crisis and the mistakes of their older peers. They understand that personal finance is serious business, and this will lead them to focus on it earlier and more diligently than many of the early baby boomers have done.

The more cynical explanation is that the younger you are, the more there is to be pessimistic about. Those with fewer years in front of them have less to plan for, and thus less to worry about.

A curious view of interest rates

An curious aspect of the study was that 52 percent of the overall respondent population, and 55 percent of the 54-and-under age group, cited rising interest rates as a concern. This suggests that most people view themselves more as borrowers than as savers. With rates on savings accounts, money market accounts, and CDs near zero, anyone who planned on being a net saver over time should be rooting for interest rates to go up.

This survey suggests most people view themselves as net borrowers, who would root for lower interest rates. That's not an optimistic view of the financial future!

Posted in: Savings Accounts

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Savings accounts look as good as gold (or better!)

September 26, 2011

| MoneyRates.com Senior Financial Analyst, CFA

Interest on savings accounts is nothing to get excited about these days, but a recent tumble in gold prices is just the latest example of why the safety of savings accounts is extremely valuable.

Gold has tumbled by more than 10 percent over the past two weeks. Against that backdrop, CD, savings, and money market rates of around 1 percent suddenly look much more attractive.

The value of safety

Of course, gold is not the only example of an investment bubble that has abruptly burst. In fact, investors should be used to this pattern after the past dozen years. Dot-com stocks, real estate, and oil prices have all seen spectacular boom-and-bust cycles over that period. Gold may be on its way to becoming the latest investment to follow this course.

What's different about gold, however, is that it is often touted as a save haven in troubled times. The fact is, though, that the value of gold is highly dependent on price speculation. After all, it doesn't produce income or have any guaranteed price level. Its price fluctuations create opportunities to make money, but also the risk of losing money.

What's especially striking about the recent decline in gold prices is that it comes in the context of fears about the deteriorating financial situation in Europe. This underscores the fact that gold is not really a safe haven in times of trouble. It can be exposed to some of the same systemic risks as stocks and other financial instruments.

Accentuate the positive

On the other hand, you have the true safety of CDs, savings, and money market accounts. It's true that average interest rates on these accounts have shrunk to a fraction of 1 percent, except for long-term CDs, which pay a little bit more. However, the volatile investment environment has redefined what a good return is. These days, any positive return is a good thing.

You can accentuate that positive by shopping for CD, savings, and money market rates. That can allow you to add about a percent over average rates--no small victory in a climate where positive returns are scarce.

Posted in: Savings Accounts

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Where do I start with handling a parent's finances?

September 26, 2011

| MoneyRates.com Senior Financial Analyst, CFA

Q: My mother is getting on in years, and had an attorney draw up a power of attorney so I could handle her financial affairs for her. I'm a little overwhelmed by trying to figure out what to do next. Do I move all her money into a checking account for easy access? How do I plan for bigger expenses, like if she has to go into a nursing home?

A: There are few things more confusing than having to jump into the middle of someone else's financial affairs, but if you take it one step of a time, it will soon become fairly routine. Here are five steps to take:

  1. Identify your mother's accounts. This includes bank accounts and also investment accounts. You don't necessarily have to keep all her money in a checking account, but as CDs mature you might want to direct the proceeds into savings accounts, where the money can be accessed without penalty.
  2. Get authorized on her accounts. Visit her bank or banks, present the power of attorney, and have them authorize you to give instructions on all of her accounts.
  3. Get a handle on her income and expenses. Go through past checking account statements so you know enough about her income and expenses to form a budget.
  4. Establish a routine for handling her mail. This is a good fail-safe to make sure she hasn't forgotten to tell you about any accounts that exist, or bills that need to be paid.
  5. Start to learn about financial aid options. Find out how Medicaid might help if her assets are seriously diminished, and also look into possible VA benefits if she is a military veteran or the widow of one.

Remember, if someone chose you for this responsibility, it means they trust you and are confident you can handle it. Now all you have to do is prove them right.

Got a financial question about saving, investing, or banking? MoneyRates.com invites you to submit your questions to its "Ask the Expert" feature. Just go to the MoneyRates.com home page and look for the "Ask the Expert" box on the lower left.

Posted in: Ask the expert

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How Bernanke ruined the stock market's week

September 23, 2011

| MoneyRates.com Senior Financial Analyst, CFA

Like a much-hyped movie that flops on its opening weekend, the Federal Reserve's latest attempt to revive the economy--the so-called Operation Twist--received a resoundingly negative reaction upon its announcement on September 21.

In just an hour and a half of trading after the announcement on Wednesday afternoon, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped by more than 200 points. It lost another 400 points by the end of trading on Thursday. In all, that's a market tumble of more than 5 percent in just over 24 hours.

With the decision to sell $400 billion in near-term Treasury bonds to purchase the same amount of longer-term bonds, the Fed said it hopes to hold down long-term interest rates and produce a more accommodating atmosphere for business. But the news didn't seem to strike investors as they hoped.

So why did the Fed announcement bomb so completely?

The burden of high expectations

To a large extent, the Fed suffered from the burden of high expectations. It's hard to fathom what the market expected them to pull out of the hat when their options are so limited. Short-term interest rates are already near zero. Current mortgage rates--a focus of Operation Twist's attempt to bring long-term rates down--are already at record lows and have been well below historical norms for some time.

In other words, while the Fed can manipulate interest rates to some degree, two things were already clear before Operation Twist was announced:

  1. The Fed has essentially run out of room to push rates down any further.
  2. Lower rates have not stimulated spending.

Still, the market was clearly expecting something better than Operation Twist and expressed its disappointment with a sharp sell-off.

Twisting the knife

The Fed may have added to the problem with the way it announced Operation Twist. Both in the wording of the announcement and in its increasingly gimmicky initiatives, the Fed has contributed to an atmosphere of rising panic. It is getting sucked into the short-term focus of the markets rather than reinforcing the ways that economic cycles tend to resolve themselves.

Ultimately, these style points didn't do the real damage, but they may have twisted the knife a little.

For those with savings in CDs, savings accounts, and money market accounts, Operation Twist is largely a non-event. It is, at least, an occasion to appreciate that even minuscule savings and money market rates are better than being in a sinking stock market. Operation Twist won't help those rates, but with its emphasis on bringing down longer-term interest rates, it shouldn't hurt short-term deposit rates any further.

As for the economy as a whole, in the long run Operation Twist might be like one of those movies that bombs upon its initial release, but later goes on to become a well-regarded classic. For now though, critics and the general public agree: Operation Twist is a flop.

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Why we're socking our money away

September 21, 2011

| Money Rates Columnist

Banks across the country are seeing a historic flood of money pouring into FDIC-protected checking accounts, savings accounts, certificates of deposit and money market accounts.

According to the Wichita Eagle newspaper, the amount sitting in the insured accounts in the first six months of 2011 totals $9.8 trillion--an all-time high.

The size of the deposits is less a reflection of a newfound interest in saving as it is a lack of other investing options. Investors are worried about the recent volatility of the stock market, and businesses with deposits are leaving money in the bank rather than hiring or expanding due to concerns about the economy.

Like even the best CD rates and the best savings accounts, the interest rates on other investment tools, such as government or municipal bonds, are too low to be enticing, the Eagle said.

Banks are normally thrilled to have large deposits because they make money by lending the money out and charging interest. But the current situation is different; demand for loans by both consumers and businesses is weak, and the banks' ability to make money by investing the deposits in bonds is limited because of low interest rates.

In fact, the large deposits and dearth of loan applications may be costing some banks. For instance, the Bank of New York Mellon, which handles deposits for large industrial clients, recently told its customers it was going to charge--yielding, in effect, a negative interest rate--for balances larger than $50 million. Idle deposits also cost so-called retail banks--such as the ones you and I use--in FDIC insurance fees and other expenses.

The investing website Motley Fool argues that people who stick their money in a checking, savings or money market account rather than investing it are making a big mistake--even when the market is uncertain. The Fool notes that leaving your money idle means its value is being eroded by inflation and taxes.

Posted in: Personal Finance

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