How the 2008 Financial Crisis led to a better way to manage cash

Maklay62 / Pixabay

(Originally published on ValueWalk April 28, 2020)

Mark Twain is reputed to have said that “history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” The events of the past few months have certainly conjured up many memories of the Financial Crisis, and for those following bank stocks, the emotional roller coaster of 2008-2009 feels all-too-present today. The fate of many of our nation’s banks may rest largely on how long our economic paralysis is sustained in support of the greater good of public health.

Bankers and research analysts agree that American banks are much better-capitalized than they were a dozen years ago and should be able to withstand several months of severe economic contraction. But if the economy were to remain largely shut for six months, absent a windfall of additional money-printing from the Fed, another financial crisis could ensue atop our existing humanitarian crisis.

With all this doom and gloom, there is a glimmer of hope. Like every other financial or humanitarian catastrophe to befall our modern age – World War I, The Great Depression, World War II, Black Monday, the collapse of Long Term Capital Management, the Dot-com bust, 9/11, and the most recent Financial Crisis  – the path downwards has been followed by an even more ebullient path upwards. The shape, timeline, and certainly of any future recovery is unknowable, but we can hold out hope that it will at least rhyme with the events of the past.

I’ve had the experience of living and working through several market dislocations. From each one, I’ve sought to learn how to extrapolate from relevant data and facts, and, perhaps more importantly, how to recognize and curtail emotions. While every investment brochure disclaims that “past performance is not indicative of future results,” as an investor, it’s important to learn from your own past performance and journal your mistakes. Only by dissecting your thought processes at the time – both rational and emotional – can you endeavor to make better decisions the next time you are faced with a similar set of facts and circumstances.

Online Banks: The Financial Crisis As Inspiration

I was stationed in Tokyo during the Financial Crisis, working as an investment banker for one of the largest American banks, which had recently acquired one of Japan’s largest brokerage firms. I arrived in August 2007, just after closing the last private equity-based capital raise that involved so-called “Toggle Notes,” where a borrower could elect whether to pay the interest it owed in cash or in-kind (i.e. more debt.) It was illustrative of just how favorable the capital markets had become for issuers – a sign of a raging bull market where seemingly nothing could go wrong.

As an analyst on Wall Street in the late 90s, I learned that the hallmark of the late stage of a bull market is when the market “climbs a wall of worry.” In other words, in spite of each piece of bad news that could befall the economy, stock market indices continue to march upwards. In addition to overly accommodating capital markets, several other more pedestrian warning signs were also present by the summer of 2007. The drivers who shuttled me home from the office late at night were increasingly talking about their stock market gains and the houses they were flipping for profit. In-flight magazines contained countless ads for hi-rise luxury condominium developments. Were these signs of a healthy economy where the rising tide lifts all boats, or a warning that the pace of wealth creation was unsustainable?

As 2007 progressed into 2008, the unsustainability of the bubble in asset prices became all-too-apparent, and banks began to fail. From 2008 through 2012, the FDIC closed a staggering 465 banks. To put this in context, in the five years prior to 2008, only ten banks had failed. The bank where I worked didn’t fare much better. Bearing witness, first-hand, to such a precipitous fall from grace taught me an important lesson in the fragility of banks. No matter how storied the name or how solid the marble that adorns its branch entrances, banks exist at the pleasure of investors and depositors’ willingness to extend credit in exchange for levered returns.

The Importance Of Keeping Cash Safe

In response to the Great Depression, President Roosevelt and Congress enacted the Banking Act of 1933, paving the way for the creation of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). When my bank’s share price hit $0.97 in March of 2009, it struck me that much of my cash held at that bank might be in peril. While the FDIC provides deposit insurance, that coverage is limited, and every dollar that you hold above the FDIC insurance cap makes you, in effect, an unsecured creditor of that bank. I realized that in order to keep cash safe, I needed a better solution.

I began researching options for cash. Many banks and brokerage firms offered brokered deposit solutions, where a bank takes your excess deposits and sells them to other banks. The pitch is that this helps you obtain increased FDIC coverage, and so you should feel safe keeping all of your funds at your home bank or brokerage account. But my research revealed several risks inherent in this system, as well as large conflicts of interest. If I was to ensure all my cash was safe and liquid, I needed a better solution.

The best thing I could think of was to open new bank accounts at multiple banks and diversify my holdings by spreading my cash across them. I’d hold each account in my own name, control how much was kept at each bank (to ensure all funds remained below the FDIC limit at each bank), and retain full same-day liquidity at each bank. Unlike brokered deposits, where you might not be fully insured if the broker sells your deposits to a bank where you already hold accounts, and where you could lose access to all your funds if your main bank goes under, with my strategy, I knew that I’d maintain full control, full liquidity, and full FDIC-insurance coverage.

Online Banks And Interest Rates

In 2009, online banking was still relatively nascent, but, it turned out, opening new accounts at online banks was much faster and easier than going into a bank branch. I opened accounts at several of the leading online banks, which also happened to offer higher interest rates than their brick-and-mortar peers, owing to their lower operating cost structure. Much like Amazon had figured out how to sell a textbook cheaper by eschewing physical stores, online banks applied this concept to banking, making it possible to earn a higher interest rate on FDIC-insured savings accounts.

Still, the online banks changed their rates with great frequency, and often when I logged in to check my balances, I found that interest rates had changed. It occurred to me that I could move funds from one bank to another to benefit from yet-higher interest rates. For the next three-and-a-half years, I found myself logging in each month, checking rates, and manually moving funds from bank to bank to obtain the highest yield while keeping all my funds FDIC-insured.

This strategy could be highly lucrative (effectively capturing a pure arbitrage in the market for bank deposits) but also a huge time sink. There had to be a better way. How could I automate this process, so that my money could continue to earn the highest yields possible without my having to lift a finger? And if I could find a way to automate the management of my own cash, why couldn’t I open up this same strategy to anyone else who wanted to simultaneously earn higher yields with less risk?

Online Banks: Conclusion

The result: I created my own automated cash management platform – MaxMyInterest.com. Seven years and three patents later, Max is now the highest-yielding cash management solution in the United States, used by financial advisors at thousands of wealth management firms with more than $1 trillion of assets under management. With a top yield of 1.71%, Max stands above all other cash options offered by banks and brokerage firms – yet, the core premise remains the same as it was back in 2009: deliver the best yields, fully FDIC-insured, with same-day liquidity and no conflicts of interest.

While it may be difficult to envision now, the COVID-19 crisis shall too pass. And, if history does indeed rhyme, in its wake American ingenuity and determination will likely push our economy and financial markets yet higher – although the recovery may be long and uneven. As an investor, your appetite for risk may again increase, too. But for the portion of your portfolio that remains in cash, you should remain as protected and earn as much as possible.

Read the Fine Print: Not all Cash Solutions are Created Equal

Consider the terms & conditions before handing over your cash to a robo-advisor

The financial industry is abuzz with a bevy of new cash solutions aimed at individual investors. Each offers benefits versus keeping funds in traditional bank or brokerage accounts. But it’s important to read the fine print – not all solutions are created equal.

Fundamentally, people hold cash for two reasons: safety and liquidity. Safety typically refers to the preservation of value or the use of cash as a hedge against turmoil elsewhere in the portfolio. Liquidity is for paying monthly bills, funding capital calls, or for the option value inherent in being able to invest at a moment’s notice.

The latter is why Warren Buffett loves cash so much. Holding lots of cash on hand enables you to be “greedy while others are fearful” and also provides the psychological cushion necessary to weather the ups and downs of the market. This may explain why, according to Capgemini, the average high net worth household keeps a surprising 23% of its investable assets in cash. In the midst of the financial crisis when everyone else was selling, those fortunate or prescient enough to hold cash were buying – and they profited handsomely. Had you bought the S&P 500 at the market trough, you’d be sitting on a 300% gain right now, a once-in-a-generation event in public equities investing.

If the most important aspects of cash are that it be kept safe (i.e., fully FDIC-insured) and liquid (i.e., immediate accessibility), why are these new cash solutions falling short on both fronts?

The answer is in the fine print.

Behind each of these cash-like offerings is an old system of brokered deposits. Invented nearly 20 years ago, brokered deposits were a simple way for banks to offer customers increased FDIC insurance coverage to prevent customers from opening up additional accounts at competing banks. Unfortunately, brokered deposits don’t offer same-day liquidity, and sometimes cap withdrawals at as little as $100,000 per day. And brokered deposits aren’t always fully FDIC-insured since deposit brokers often place funds at banks where you might already have a bank account, resulting in less-than-full coverage. Investors typically need to read the fine print to figure out where their funds are being placed and then mail in a written letter to request that certain banks be excluded from the brokered deposit program. Hardly a transparent or practical option for most investors.

Brokered deposit systems work by taking your deposits and selling them to other banks. The deposit broker collects a high-interest rate from the recipient banks – circa 2.50% in today’s market – then keeps a spread for itself, perhaps 0.20%, and passes on a net yield of 2.30% to the client. While advertised as “free,” this offering isn’t “free” at all. As a customer, you’re paying 0.20% for this service, and if you read the fine print, you’ll find that you are taxed on the full 2.50%, even though only 2.30% of that will ever see its way through to your account. Need access to your money the same day? You’re out of luck – your funds are locked up by the broker and not available until the next day. Changed your mind and want to withdraw all your money? You may not be able to do that either due to withdrawal limits imposed by the broker. And if the originating institution fails, you could lose access to all of your funds until the FDIC resolution process is complete.

What’s shocking about these recent developments are that some robo advisors are RIAs that should be acting in a fiduciary capacity are now co-opting the same tools that broker-dealers have used for years to make money on their clients’ cash while marketing these solutions as “free.” They are by no means free. That spread that they keep for themselves is the fee. It’s just hidden in the fine print.

Investors seeking higher yields on their cash have other options. They can look directly to online banks, or solutions like MaxMyInterest, which helps clients obtain increased FDIC insurance coverage, preferential yields, and same-day liquidity on the cash that sits in their own bank accounts, in a manner that’s fully transparent and free from conflicts of interest.

If you’re sitting on cash, you may be fortunate enough to benefit from the next market dislocation. Before you decide to move that cash in search of a higher yield, I encourage you to do one thing: read the fine print.

Gary E. Zimmerman is the Founder and CEO of MaxMyInterest, an independent, intelligent cash management solution that helps individual investors earn more on their cash, free from conflicts or cross-sell. Visit MaxMyInterest.com or MaxForAdvisors.com for more information.

Questions Clients Ask Advisors About Max

High net worth households currently have 23.7% of their holdings in cash.

High net worth households currently have 23.7% of their holdings in cash.

When clients hear that they could earn more on their cash without sacrificing liquidity or giving up FDIC insurance, they are often surprised. Aren’t banks paying almost 0% in interest now?

It’s a conversation we hear frequently at Max, where we are working to help financial advisors and their clients maximize the interest they earn on cash in the bank.

Max is an intelligent cash management service that automatically allocates clients’ cash between their existing checking or brokerage account and a portfolio of higher-yielding FDIC-insured savings accounts at the nation’s leading online banks. Most Max clients are earning more than 1.00%.

Clients, and advisors, frequently have questions about how Max can accomplish this goal. Here are some real-life comments they’ve made:

 

“Please look into this opportunity to earn more interest on cash.”

“[Your financial-advisory firm] is behind the times. You guys need to establish a relationship with Max so I can earn better interest on cash.”

“Have you heard anything about this outfit? I read about them in The Economist. They claim to move funds between bank accounts to optimize interest rates. The advertising implies that they can get around 1% versus whatever bank you have is paying.”

“Any chance [your financial-advisory firm] would offer this?”

“I saw a reference to this website in the WSJ and found it to be pretty interesting. Please take a look and we can discuss when you come to Boca.”

 

The reason clients are curious about Max is that the average savings account in the U.S. pays 0.11%, with many bank or brokerage accounts paying only 0.01% or 0.02%. That means Max members are earning about 10 times as much on cash as the average, and considerably more that they earn in a brokerage account.

How does Max help clients earn more on cash? Online banks are more efficient than brick-and-mortar banks. Without retail branches, their lower cost structure allows them to pass along more yield to clients who deposit cash with them. And by optimizing clients’ cash across several online banks, Max helps keep cash within the FDIC deposit-guarantee limits.

For financial advisors, offering Max to clients has the effect of bringing held-away cash into view. Over time, clients migrate cash towards Max, where they can grant their financial advisor read-only access to their balances through the Max Advisor Dashboard (a free service for financial advisors.) With the ability to see the cash that clients are holding, advisors can spark a new conversation about portfolio allocation, and often nudge some of this cash into higher-beta asset classes.

Max is not a bank, nor does it provide financial advice.  Max is a technology-driven tool that automatically optimizes a client’s cash balances among accounts at online banks held in the client’s own name. Clients retain direct access to their funds, maintain their relationship with their primary checking-account bank (or custodial account at Fidelity or Schwab), and can continue to use all bank services like notaries and tellers.

Learn more about the Max Advisor Dashboard and how to invite clients to Max by visiting MaxForAdvisors.com. Or contact advisors@maxmyinterest.com with questions.

Introducing the Max Advisor Dashboard

For financial advisors, cash is often the forgotten asset class.

For financial advisors, cash is often the forgotten asset class.

High net worth households are holding about one-quarter of their assets in cash. But financial advisors say their clients have 10% of their portfolios in cash. These are the same investors; why the discrepancy?

Financial advisors are charged with managing their clients’ investment portfolios. That includes stocks, bonds, and other asset classes — but it frequently excludes cash. That’s because investors often hold cash across multiple institutions — in their checking account, brokerage account, and perhaps other banks as well — and may only tell their advisor about the portion of their cash they intend to use for investments. They may not realize that they could be earning significantly more on this cash, or that they should be apportioning it to take full advantage of FDIC insurance.

With the new Max Advisor Dashboard, when an advisor’s clients become Max members, it’s now possible for the advisor to see all client cash holdings in one view. This is good for both the advisor and the client.

The client gets all the benefits that come with Max membership, starting with more yield on cash: currently about 1%, or 10 times as much as the national average. Max automatically optimizes accounts for FDIC coverage, and makes sure members always are earning the maximum interest possible across their accounts. The client can optimize accounts on demand, instruct money to move from checking to savings and back, and receive one file with all their 1099-INT tax reports.

For the advisor, the benefit is in being able to offer clients a higher yield on cash than the current rate offered at most institutions. Gaining a view of clients’ cash held in different accounts means that advisors know what funds are sitting on the sidelines in case investment opportunities come up. And advisors can now have a conversation with clients about what the cash is for, and how to make the best of it.

Clients can grant their advisors read-only access to their Max account simply by adding their advisor’s email to their Profile page. In addition to gaining visibility over client cash balances, advisors will find additional materials on the Max Advisor Dashboard, including setup guides, explanatory materials, and a sample email to clients to let them know about this new offering.

Learn more and get started with the Advisor Dashboard now.