The Money Man — How to Choose The Right Bank

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As the Wells Fargo Bank branch in Wilton Manors unveils their gay themed mural I am reminded of the actual business of banks. The business of a bank is much different than most bank customers think it is.

Many think that when they deposit their money in the bank, the bank has that money for their use, on their demand. Nothing is actually further from the truth. The bank does not make money holding your money, they make money lending and investing your money. That being said, robbing a bank is generally a bad idea because contrary to popular belief, there is actually very little money in a bank.

Once you hand over your money to the bank you are a depositor, more accurately a creditor. The bank owes you the money, and in the normal course of business provides it upon demand. That didn’t happen in the Great Depression when a national run on banks created a panic in long lines of depositors attempting to get money the banks didn’t have. The bank run was ended by a government-imposed bank holiday, a cooling off period that allowed depositors to chill and the banks to restock cash.

In the shadow of that fiasco the Federal government created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, FDIC, to insure deposits. Banks pay premiums to the FDIC, which will step in when a bank fails and make depositors whole, up to the limit of the coverage. At the moment the FDIC is broke.

In today’s world the FDIC gets a strong bank to merge the bad bank into their business and disguise the failed bank. In reality it has created a less strong bank under the banner of a strong bank. During the Great Recession beginning in 2007 many of those weakened banks were merged with big banks creating banks that have since been deemed ‘too big to fail.’

These banks are so big that the Federal Reserve has been pumping hundreds of billions of dollars into them knowing that the failure of one will likely mean the failure of most; far exceeding the governments wherewithal to step in and save one — let alone several. In the event of a big bank meltdown, at best your deposits will be held up for an extended period of time while a solution is worked out; a solution that could come in any form and a Greece style solution is no longer incomprehensible.

What can an individual do to protect their deposits? Actually, several things.

First, visit BauerFinancial.com and check the star rating of your banking institution.

Settle only for a five star bank, preferably a medium sized local one. A small bank may be very strong on paper, even five star strong, yet if you have access to their balance sheet you may find that they have a large exposure to one borrower. That one large borrower may be financially strong and current on its obligations, but things can change fast. A large bank may also appear strong yet in the event of a major financial upheaval unwinding the mess is going to take time; time you may not have.

Second, have several banks not just one. Several five star banks will help you sleep nights. Even in the event that one of them goes bad you still have access to the others. For instance you can use one for your everyday prefunding and spending, one for your emergency savings and one for your capital savings. Give particular scrutiny to banks that advertise teaser rates to get your deposits; they may turn out to be too risky.

Third, you could use a mix of banks, credit unions and Treasury Direct. Banks and credit unions are insured by different organizations and Treasury Direct is a facility of the U.S. Treasury where insurance is unnecessary.

Though banks are building new branches on every available lot of land and painting pretty murals in modern lobbies, responsibility for your hard earned deposits remains yours and diversification of those deposits is your best tool.


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