Your Money Is Not Going to Go Poof

Readers of this blog will already know that we believe that (a) the credit crisis of the past two weeks is serious, (b) there is a real risk of a global recession,  but (c) there are practical steps that governments can take to minimize the damage to the economy. Several of my friends have asked me what this means for them. And I wanted to repeat here what I told them: nothing cataclysmic is going to happen to your money.

First, let’s start with deposit insurance. In general, your checking accounts, savings accounts, and CDs are guaranteed by the FDIC up to $100,000 per account holder per bank, and that is likely to go up to $250,000 shortly. Some people have been pulling money out of banks even though they are below this limit, because they don’t know about the insurance, don’t trust it, or don’t want to deal with the hassle. Now this is something with which I have personal experience. I had a CD (<$100K) at IndyMac Bank when it failed earlier this year. The FDIC took over the bank over the weekend and by Monday everything was exactly the same as on Friday: same web site, same call centers, same CD account, everything. The only change was that the name had changed from IndyMac Bank to IndyMac Federal Bank. I didn’t have to file a claim or even call anyone. My CD is still there, earning interest (at 4.15%, by the way). So if you have an insured account, you shouldn’t worry about it. (Some people have pointed out that the FDIC could run out of money if too many banks fail, but it’s a certainty that the government would put more money in the FDIC in that case.)

Second, you may have investments in stocks or bonds. Individual securities could be wiped out, and some have been already; not only did Lehman shareholders lose their money, but bondholders lost most of their money, too. But stocks are ownership shares in real companies, and most companies are not going to stop operating overnight. They will continue to buy, build, and sell whatever they buy, build, and sell today. Some will go bankrupt, as always happens, and some will lose value, but some will gain value. And it’s not likely that every company in the U.S. will lose all of its value at the same time. So you should be diversified, but you should always be diversified.

Third, there are your debit and credit cards. As long as you have money in your bank account, you will still be able to get at it using your debit card. It is unfathomable that a bank would need cash so desperately that it would block access to deposit accounts (and remember, those accounts are insured). When banks are at risk of failing, they want to preserve as much value as they can to sell to an acquirer. A large part of the value is the base of depositors and the ongoing banking operations. As for credit cards, it is possible that banks will gradually reduce the amount of credit they have extended by offering fewer cards, tightening the terms, reducing credit limits, and even unilaterally canceling some people’s cards. This could affect some people. But again, there is no reason why the credit card system as a whole would fail.

Now, if there is a recession, and that is certainly a possibility, it could have serious consequences for you: you could lose your job, your rate of salary increases could go down, your house could continue to lose value, your investments could lose value, and so on. As we’ve said, there are concrete steps that governments can take to minimize the duration and severity of any recession. In any case, you’re not going to wake up one day and find out that your money is gone. (Unless you keep your money under your mattress, in which case someone might steal it.)