Certificates of Deposit: Tips for Investors
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 $100,000.
Heres how CDs work: When you purchase a CD, you invest a fixed
sum of money for fixed period of time six months, one year, five
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 todays 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 youve
invested in a long-term CD and interest rates subsequently rise, youll
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 dont 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 theyve tied up their money for
five, ten, or even twenty 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
- Understand the Difference Between Call Features and Maturity
Dont assume that a "federally insured one-year non-callable"
CD matures in one 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 "one-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 CDs 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 $100,000
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 $100,000 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 Corporations web site and read its publication
Your Insured Deposit or call the FDIC's Consumer Information Center
- 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 $100,000 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. You can do this by calling your state securities regulator
or by checking with the National Association of Securities Dealers'
"Central Registration Depository" at 1-800-289-9999.
- Confirm the Interest Rate Youll Receive and How Youll
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 youll be paid
for example, by check or by an electronic transfer of funds.
- Ask Whether the Interest Rate Ever Changes If youre
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 pre-set 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
Don't be embarrassed if you invested in a long-term, brokered CD in the
mistaken belief that it was a shorter-term instrument-you are not alone.
Instead, you should complain promptly to the broker who sold you the CD.
By complaining early you may improve your chances of getting your money
back. Here are the steps you should take:
- Talk to the broker who sold you the CD, and explain the problem fully,
especially if you misunderstood any of the CD's terms. Tell your broker
how you want the problem resolved.
- If your broker can't resolve your problem, then talk to his or her
- If that doesn't work, then write a letter to the compliance department
at the firm's main office. The branch manager should be able to provide
with contact information for that department. Explain your problem clearly,
and tell the firm how you want it resolved. Ask the compliance office
to respond to you in writing within 30 days.
- If you're still not satisfied, then send your complaint using the
online complaint form. Be sure to attach copies of any letters you've
sent already to the firm. If you don't have access to the Internet,
please write to us at the address below:
Office of Investor Education and Assistance
U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission
450 Fifth Street, NW
Washington, DC 20549-0213
We will forward your complaint to the firm's compliance department and
ask that they look into the problem and respond to you in writing.
Please note that sometimes a complaint can be successfully resolved.
But in many cases, the firm denies wrongdoing, and it comes down to one
person's word against another's. In that case, we cannot do anything more
to help resolve the complaint. We cannot act as a judge or an arbitrator
to establish wrongdoing and force the firm to satisfy your claim. And
we cannot act as your lawyer.