Investors searching for relatively low-risk investments that can easily be converted into cash often turn to certificates of deposit (CDs). A CD is a special type of deposit account with a bank or thrift institution that typically offers a higher rate of interest than a regular savings account. Unlike other investments, CDs feature federal deposit insurance up to $250,000.
Here’s how CDs work: When you purchase a CD, you invest a fixed sum of money for a fixed period of time—6 months, 1 year, 5 years or more—and, in exchange, the issuing bank pays you interest, typically at regular intervals. When you cash in or redeem your CD, you receive the money you originally invested plus any accrued interest. But if you redeem your CD before it matures, you may have to pay an “early withdrawal” penalty or forfeit a portion of the interest you earned.
Although most investors have traditionally purchased CDs through local banks, many brokerage firms and independent salespeople now offer CDs. These individuals and entities—known as “deposit brokers”—can sometimes negotiate a higher rate of interest for a CD by promising to bring a certain amount of deposits to the institution. The deposit broker can then offer these “brokered CDs” to their customers.
At one time, most CDs paid a fixed interest rate until they reached maturity. But, like many other products in today’s markets, CDs have become more complicated. Investors may now choose among variable-rate CDs, long-term CDs and CDs with other special features.
Some long-term, high-yield CDs have “call” features, meaning that the issuing bank may choose to terminate—or call—the CD after only one year or some other fixed period of time. Only the issuing bank may call a CD, not the investor. For example, a bank might decide to call its high-yield CDs if interest rates fall. But if you’ve invested in a long-term CD and interest rates subsequently rise, you’ll be locked in at the lower rate.
Before you consider purchasing a CD from your bank or brokerage firm, make sure you fully understand all of its terms. Carefully read the disclosure statements, including any fine print. And don’t be dazzled by high yields. Ask questions—and demand answers—before you invest. These tips can help you assess what features make sense for you:
- Find out when the CD matures. As simple as this sounds, many investors fail to confirm the maturity dates for their CDs and are later shocked to learn that they’ve tied up their money for 5, 10 or even 20 years. Before you purchase a CD, ask to see the maturity date in writing.
- Investigate any call features. Callable CDs give the issuing bank the right to terminate—or “call”—the CD after a set period of time. But they do not give you that same right. If interest rates fall, the issuing bank might call the CD. In that case, you should receive the full amount of your original deposit plus any unpaid accrued interest. But you’ll have to shop for a new one with a lower rate of return. Unlike the bank, you can never “call” the CD and get your principal back. So if interest rates rise, you’ll be stuck in a long-term CD paying below-market rates. In that case, if you want to cash out, you will lose some of your principal. That’s because your broker will have to sell your CD at a discount to attract a buyer. Few buyers would be willing to pay full price for a CD with a below-market interest rate.
- Understand the difference between call features and maturity. Don’t assume that a “federally insured 1-year non-callable” CD matures in 1 year. It doesn’t. These words mean the bank cannot redeem the CD during the first year, but they have nothing to do with the CD’s maturity date. A “1-year non-callable” CD may still have a maturity date 15 or 20 years in the future. If you have any doubt, ask the sales representative at your bank or brokerage firm to explain the CD’s call features and to confirm when it matures.
- For brokered CDs, identify the issuer. Because federal deposit insurance is limited to a total aggregate amount of $250,000 for each depositor in each bank or thrift institution, it is very important that you know which bank or thrift issued your CD. Your broker may plan to put your money in a bank or thrift where you already have other CDs or deposits. You risk not being fully insured if the brokered CD would push your total deposits at the institution over the $250,000 insurance limit. (If you think that might happen, contact the institution to explore potential options for remaining fully insured, or call the FDIC.) For more information about federal deposit insurance, visit the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s website at www.fdic.gov and read its publication, Your Insured Deposit, or call the FDIC’s Consumer Information Center at 1-877-275-3342. The phone numbers for the hearing impaired are 1-800-925-4618 or local (VA) 703-562-2289.
- Find out how the CD is held. Unlike traditional bank CDs, brokered CDs are sometimes held by a group of unrelated investors. Instead of owning the entire CD, each investor owns a piece. Confirm with your broker how your CD is held, and be sure to ask for a copy of the exact title of the CD. If several investors own the CD, the deposit broker will probably not list each person’s name in the title. But you should make sure that the account records reflect that the broker is merely acting as an agent for you and the other owners (for example, “XYZ Brokerage as Custodian for Customers”). This will ensure that your portion of the CD qualifies for up to $250,000 of FDIC coverage.
- Research any penalties for early withdrawal. Deposit brokers often tout the fact that their CDs have no penalty for early withdrawal. While technically true, these claims can be misleading. Be sure to find out how much you’ll have to pay if you cash in your CD before maturity and whether you risk losing any portion of your principal. If you are the sole owner of a brokered CD, you may be able to pay an early withdrawal penalty to the bank that issued the CD to get your money back. But if you share the CD with other customers, your broker will have to find a buyer for your portion. If interest rates have fallen since you purchased your CD and the bank hasn’t called it, your broker may be able to sell your portion for a profit. But if interest rates have risen, there may be less demand for your lower-yielding CD. That means you would have to sell the CD at a discount and lose some of your original deposit—despite no “penalty” for early withdrawal.
- Thoroughly check out the broker. Deposit brokers do not have to go through any licensing or certification procedures, and no state or federal agency licenses, examines or approves them. Since anyone can claim to be a deposit broker, you should always check whether your broker, or the company he or she works for, has a history of complaints or fraud.
- Confirm the interest rate you’ll receive and how you’ll be paid. You should receive a disclosure document that tells you the interest rate on your CD and whether the rate is fixed or variable. Be sure to ask how often the bank pays interest—for example, monthly or semi-annually. And confirm how you’ll be paid—for example, by check or by an electronic transfer of funds.
- Ask whether the interest rate ever changes. If you’re considering investing in a variable-rate CD, make sure you understand when and how the rate can change. Some variable-rate CDs feature a “multi-step” or “bonus rate” structure in which interest rates increase or decrease over time according to a preset schedule. Other variable-rate CDs pay interest rates that track the performance of a specified market index, such as the S&P 500 or the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
The bottom-line question you should always ask yourself is: Does this investment make sense for me? A high-yield, long-term CD with a maturity date of 15 to 20 years may make sense for many younger investors who want to diversify their financial holdings. But it might not make sense for elderly investors.